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Nothing to see here: HBC practises openness and transparency.

HBC’s new weapons against critics: censorship and a reverse-ferret

Open debate and argument about the legal and other merits of a case is part of the planning process. That’s the theory anyway. Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has other ideas. Bernard McGinley reports on recent changes, including a surprise development.

In a new low, HBC officers recently took to censoring an objection to a planning application. This removed meaning and significance from the electronic, ‘live’ version of the objection. Such censorship prevents detailed comments to members of the Planning Committee, for instance, and to officers soon to write a report and recommendation on the case. This is hardly open government.  It is however the first known case of the Council masking details on the alleged merits or flaws of a case.

Last week, without announcement or explanation, the Council reversed its action and deleted the redactions.

Nevertheless, the precedent is troubling. Redaction locally used to mean blacking of parts of HBC’s own documents — in an FOI (Freedom of Information) response to a query for instance. Now it means obliterating parts of incoming documents as well.  This is Big Brotherish — the 21st century memory hole in action.

Though HBC has rules on abusiveness and data protection, they are not relevant here. The uncensored version of the document shows this.  

The title, description, and grounds of the objection, relevant history of the site, and enforcement history of the unauthorised works were all blacked out. Even the words ‘Enforcement Query’ were obliterated several times as though the term or concept were subversive or corrupting, and a danger to readers — including elected Members. (Orwell’s ‘Crimestop’ seems close, the willed avoidance of dangerous thought.) The uncensored version of the objection follows.

Unredacted text

The objection comment that was censored was – unsurprisingly – about the holiday let at Rocklands Caravan Park known as the Bunker. Redacted text is in blue bold.

Objection Application cannot be decided until enforcement query ENF/20/325 has been decided

HS/FA/20/00470 | Variation of condition 2 (approved plans) of Appeal Decision APP/B1415/C/15/3029007 (EN/15/00028, HS/FA/14/01036) Amendments to balcony fenestration, appearance of the dining area window (north side – omitting opening casement) and omission of middle balcony post on south side | Rocklands Private Caravan Park, Rocklands Lane, Hastings, TN35 5DY 

This retrospective application has been submitted as a variation to the plans, approved by the Inspector for the Secretary of State, listing ‘proposals’ as ‘amendments’ to balcony fenestration, appearance of the dining area window (north side – omitting opening casement) and omission of the middle balcony post on south side, Rocklands Private Caravan Park. The application is not comprehensive and does not cover many other unauthorised works in the redline area. 

The application redline area includes a number of unauthorised works which are under investigation by the open Planning Enforcement Query ENF/20/325. The application cannot be decided until the enforcement query is decided. The application does not cover other unauthorised works within the redline area as detailed in our previous objections.

SEG [Save Ecclesbourne Glen] wish to make a further objection to this application on the grounds that prior to any decision being made enforcement query ENF/20/325 must be decided. The enforcement query covers unauthorised works within the redline area of this application including construction of an access ramp, groundworks (excavation, levelling of land, restoration of a bank to the East of Rocklands House), installation of hardstandings and a road surface. 

Following an enforcement query from SEG (see Appendix A) HBC visited the site, opened enforcement query ENF/20/325 and wrote to Rocklands giving them six weeks to respond to the issues. It is not known whether a formal Planning Contravention Notice has been issued.

The application is a retrospective application that should include ALL works carried out within the redline area. The application does not include the unauthorised works covered by enforcement query ENF/20/325.

On the 14/12/2020 Planning Enforcement confirmed that the issues reported by SEG would be investigated: 

Thank you for your emails regarding the above site. I undertook a site visit on the 2nd December 2020. I have today written to the owners and asked them to submit robust evidence that the hard standing/road has been in situ for 4 or more years or apply for planning permission. They have been given a timeframe of 6 weeks to comply. If they fail to apply for planning permission or submit robust evidence within this timeframe we will review this case to see whether it justifies formal enforcement action.

[signed & dated] 

Appendix A Enforcement Query – Unauthorised works to the North of Rocklands building in the Scheduled Ancient Monument 

To: HBC Planning Enforcement 

Copies to [Historic England, HBC Cllrs, officers] 

This Enforcement Query concerns unauthorised developments in Rocklands Caravan Park. The developments involve works to the north of the new building in the Scheduled Ancient Monument and within the redline area of the Planning Inspectors permission APP/B1415/C/15/3029007 and the redline area of the current retrospective application HS/FA/20/00470. The works are without planning permission and are in breach of conditions imposed by the Planning Inspector’s decision. The works are without Scheduled Monument Consent. Works in a scheduled monument without seeking prior permission are a criminal offence.  

[The objection continues on breaches, evidence, planning history, and anomalies of the retrospective application for only some of the unauthorised works.]

Complaint on censorship 

In a subsequent comment to the Council, the complainant from SEG wrote:

HBC have not had the courtesy to inform me of the redactions or the reasons for redactions.

The censorship destroys the entire meaning of the objection. The censorship prevents the planning committee, consultees and the general public from making an informed decision.

The censorship has removed the list of unauthorised works in the redline area of this application. These unauthorised works are relevant to the application which is a retrospective application and must consider all works “as built” within the redline area.

Asked by HOT on 7 January to comment about the troubling treatment of an objection comment the Council stated: 

Our complaints process is in place to look into any concerns members of the public have. Through this process we will fully investigate the points outlined by SEG and provide a response to them.

Reverse-ferret

On 8 January, the day after the request by HOT for a comment, the objection document to HS/FA/20/00470 was unredacted, without comment from the Council. Publication was misleadingly dated to 16 December. 

Before that, SEG had twice asked HBC the reasons for the redaction. The responses pointedly refused to engage with the matter.

A reverse-ferret is the practice of making a U-turn (in policy or news coverage for example) without acknowledgement a form of organisational hypocrisy. 

This Google Earth image of 23 April 2020 shows a digger (circled) constructing an access route to the new building. These works include excavation within the scheduled monument, construction of an access ramp and laying of paving, which affect drainage patterns. The works are without planning permission, in breach of the Inspector’s planning conditions, and without Scheduled Monument Consent.

Rocklands breaches

The Bunker retrospective planning application HS/FA/20/00470 previously featured in HOT here and hereAlongside the case is enforcement query ENF/20/00325. Reference to this query was a particular target of the redaction. (Previously there was enforcement query ENF/20/00076 which was conveniently ‘suspended’ until application ‘470’ was decided and deemed unavailable under FOI. In a rational world the enforcement query’s findings would be considered before the application was decided, because after is too late.)

The controversy rumbles on. Historic England made a site visit, concerned about the threat to the Scheduled Ancient Monument at Rocklands and the lack of Scheduled Monument Consents. Their statement on the matter is expected this month. 

At the Full Council in December, Cllrs Dany Louise and Andy Patmore asked independently about the Bunker: the need for an independent remeasurement of it and a Planning Committee site visit there. A written response from the Leader is expected soon.

Rocklands’ Bunker, constant source of controversy.

Meanwhile the Council is contradicting itself over Bunker correspondence it holds and also says it does not. Both lines of defence cannot be true. There are  other instances of doublethink

Application ‘470’ is on the Planning Committee agenda for 19 January. The committee report makes no mention of a site visit.

Good governance:  good idea

The reputation of the planning department and therefore the Council continues  to decline. Material considerations are not considered.  Fees are sometimes charged to reply to planning enquiries, a wrong-headed policy which deters enquiries. Planning objections (e.g. about privately-owned Rocklands) are defined wrongly as complaints against the Council and thereby limited to one page, however complex the issues: in practice this is censorship that isn’t redaction. 

Planning notification letters were scrapped five years ago.

Tree decisions are no longer allowed to be made by Councillors, following changes to the HBC constitution.

In other matters Councillors wrongly state that officers have authority, unlike them. Officers meanwhile have a planning enforcement policy that disregards ‘trivial’ or ‘technical’ breaches. Local residents who complain more than once risk being categorised as vexatious’ and ineligible for an answer.

The unredaction reported here seems unlikely to have happened without the press inquiry the day before. Hastings and St Leonards has no shortage of planning controversies as often about questionable procedure as proposed decisions. There is no shortage of lack of accountability either.

Clumsy lip-service to the contrary cannot hide the Council’s persistent lack of civic pride.  

 

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Posted 09:55 Wednesday, Jan 13, 2021 In: Home Ground

8 Comments

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  1. Vitruvius

    I would be one of the first to acknowledge that our Planning Department has it’s faults, but ultimately they follow the policies set by our elected representatives, who consistently refuse to take note of legitimate concerns from their electorate.

    The current stranglehold of a largely unopposed ruling party has led to an unbelievable complacency that fosters secrecy (The Town Fund Bid), failure to meaningfully consult (The Bathing Pool Site), proposals to build on greenspace (White Rock), and now the ongoing incompetence of the Rocklands’ case being compounded by censorship, however short-lived.

    Chris Hurrell asks “what remedy is available?”

    Despite the understandable scepticism, the answer may well be to take action on 6th May and make effective use of the ballot box. New thinking in the Council Chamber can only be achieved by electing new Councillors.

    Vote for someone else rather than the usual suspects. If the current ruling cabal are returned to office without some meaningful opposition nothing will change.

    And don’t forget to exercise your other democratic right, to comment on the Draft Local Plan (you have until 24th March to do so). The Government Inspector, when appointed, is more likely to take note of community representation than our current Council.

    Comment by Vitruvius — Thursday, Jan 28, 2021 @ 11:32

  2. Bolshie

    Yes Ted it will go down in history as a “true mystery.” However, I think you can also apply the words, “Cover Up.”

    Following the landslip at the Glen there was an immediate cover up and avoidance on the part of HBC. Especially after it was discovered a bunch of trees had been felled for extending coastal views from the Rocklands site for “sheds on wheels.” Then it was further discovered how the subsidence also most likely connected to the lower area of the site where a concrete slab had been laid for more “sheds” to be parked. Since then it has been an issue similar to a government D Notice – Not to be discussed or mentioned.
    Now the Bunker, another shroud of intrigue with unanswered questions. Why did Ray Crawford the Planning Department top dog refuse the original application yet then assist the applicants to file a further planning application some four months later. The second application being granted by a delegated decision made by a subordinate in the planning department.
    Combining the Bunker and the Glen fiasco there has to be a book potential here.
    And thank you Bernard for another brilliant insight to this secrecy that prevails.

    Comment by Bolshie — Sunday, Jan 17, 2021 @ 10:05

  3. Michael Madden

    Good article Bernard,
    Below is an interesting profile from ‘Transparency International UK’ , showing how common corruption is in various English council planning departments – Labour and Tory – seems to make no difference. This is mostly regarding lobbying/conflicts of interest, and of course HBC won’t answer questions are hardly open about those subjects either.

    ‘Transparency International UK’ might be worth contacting to explain the situation here in Hastings. Let’s face it, Hastings council has never been trasparent and is now less transparent than ever. This method of redacting has been used since Coffey 2. It sums up HBC. For 6 years, re Bunker and Landslip issues in Ecclesbourne Glen, they have closed one door after another to public scrutiny. That is because they are cynical about the public much as they were in Robert Tressell’s day.

    It’s worth a read:
    https://insidecroydon.com/2020/07/31/council-planning-decisions-open-to-corruption-says-research/

    Comment by Michael Madden — Saturday, Jan 16, 2021 @ 14:06

  4. chris hurrell

    Keith Piggot in response to your questions

    Question 2: Does obfuscation extend wider than HBC Planning?

    As illustrated in my response to question 1 the problem is far wider than obfuscation by HBC Planning. HBC’s legal department and Chief executive have all been involved in vilifying SEG with unsubstantiated allegations.

    The tactic is to go for the player rather than the ball. Allegations continue. HBCs approach is one of intimidation and bullying in an attempt to silence legitimate criticism.

    The issue have been raised with elected councillors who have done absolutely nothing to resolve the issue in over a year.

    Question 3: Since September 2020, Planning and Enforcement today (15/01/2021) still ignore our six email letters concerning a developer’s violations of our permanent boundary – causing damages, i.e. despite my telecon (7/01/2021) when an Enforcement officer assured me of her email reply on Tuesday (12/01/2021). Is this silence typically endemic within HBC Planning and Enforcement, and what remedy is available to we the public?

    I don’t know the details of your case but my experience with SEG is that Planning will evade , obfuscate and mislead. Evidence is often ignored. Planning seem incapable of reading or understanding any issues that are more than a paragraph long.

    Planning Enforcement has refused to even open let alone read several enforcement queries from SEG on the unreasonable grounds that the query was longer than 2 pages. It is not possible to report complex enforcement issues (which include photos) in a mere 2 pages. HBC have been unable to explain where in the Constitution or planning protocol that queries are limited to 2 pages.

    What remedy is available? The Local Government Ombudsman is toothless and reluctant to take on complaints. HBC Officers are unaccountable. Councillors don’t seem interested. The only remedy would be to elect councillors who are prepared to question and hold officers to account. I don’t see this happening.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Saturday, Jan 16, 2021 @ 08:21

  5. chris hurrell

    Keith Piggot in response to your questions

    Question 1 : Did not Sussex Police intervene to threaten arrest for “violating the privacy of the site owner” when a drone camera operator was imaging a JCB digger operating on Rocklands’ site – (such as shown in Google Earth image dated 23 April 2020), allegedly unlawfully?

    SEG had two home visits from the police.

    The first visit in 2015 was in respect of our legitimate use of a drone to monitor the landslip. It is unclear whether the police were informed by Rocklands or HBC. The police concluded that our use of a drone was legitimate and no offence had occurred.

    A second police visit occurred in 2017 following Rocklands report that a drone had flown over their land. This drone was nothing to do with SEG. The visit also concerned allegations that SEG and its supporters were defaming and harassing Rocklands.

    The visit was well timed as it coincided with submissions of witness statements by HBC and Rocklands to an information tribunal making allegations of defamation and harassment as grounds for withholding the Coffey report.

    A police investigation followed which concluded that no defamation or harassment had occurred

    Despite this the claims of defamation and harassment and the police visit were included in HBC’s submission to the tribunal . The HBC solicitor spent 20 minutes reading comments from named supporters in an attempt to vilify SEG and its supporters.

    HBC continue to use these unsubstantiated allegations to prevent release of information under FOI and ignore the results of the police investigation.

    HBC’s strategy is to bully and intimidate those who dare to criticise them.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Saturday, Jan 16, 2021 @ 08:16

  6. Keith Piggott

    Question 1: Did not Sussex Police intervene to threaten arrest for “violating the privacy of the site owner” when a drone camera operator was imaging a JCB digger operating on Rocklands’ site – (such as shown in Google Earth image dated 23 April 2020), allegedly unlawfully?

    Question 2: Does obfuscation extend wider than HBC Planning?

    Question 3: Since September 2020, Planning and Enforcement today (15/01/2021) still ignore our six email letters concerning a developer’s violations of our permanent boundary – causing damages, i.e. despite my telecon (7/01/2021) when an Enforcement officer assured me of her email reply on Tuesday (12/01/2021). Is this silence typically endemic within HBC Planning and Enforcement, and what remedy is available to we the public?
    KP

    Comment by Keith Piggott — Friday, Jan 15, 2021 @ 14:19

  7. Mr Blair

    This sounds like everyone should be double checking HBC’s treatment of their comments. We all know the planning office take scant notice of objections but resorting to redacting legitimate comments is deeply concerning: especially from a Labour council. Disturbing & sinister? What has leader Kim Forward got to say about this, or is she waiting for a script from planning & legal officers instructing her comment? They seem to grind HBC’s organ, not the leader or councillors.

    SEG have always conducted themselves in most principled way. I am appalled they are being treated in this despicable way.

    Comment by Mr Blair — Thursday, Jan 14, 2021 @ 20:20

  8. Ted

    The “bunker” story will go down as one of the true mysteries of Hastings!

    Comment by Ted — Thursday, Jan 14, 2021 @ 19:00

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