Focus 23 October 2001Page 3
Telephone House highlighted Town Hall balance of influence
By Mary Harris
The role of planning officers and councillors at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has been called into question following the controversial development plans for Telephone House.
Archie Norman MP has urged for ground rules on the handling of applications after discovering the complicated planning history of the Church Road site.
He claims Crest Nicholson's Regency-style development of flats was refused by officers even though councillors were believed to be supportive.
A modern redesign on planning officers' encouragement was then rejected by councillors but passed at an appeal in May 2001.
Residents of Telephone House Neighbours Association who were represented at the appeal claimed the plans were too dense and would increase traffic.
In a letter to the politician, Crest's chairman John Callcutt said officers and members were at loggerheads over designs and in May last year [ 2000 ], before submitting the second application, the firm claims it was encouraged not to meet directly with the Civic Society or residents.
He said: "We are all aware the current planning application system is deficient and not able to meet with the needs of the development industry. It needs to be reviewed."
Mr Norman said: "The allegations made by Crest Nicholson raise the question of whether the balance of influence between the elected members and the officers is right."
"For important landmark sites it is vital the elected councillors set the ground rules."
"In this case it appears the scheme produced with the encouragement of officers was unacceptable to the elected members and the whole town has lost out as a result."
He added residents were entitled to know why Crest was encouraged to put forward a contemporary plan if councillors wanted a style more in keeping with other buildings.
He asked why the developers were discouraged by officers from talking to residents or meeting with the Civic Society during the "crucial initial stages".
He also wanted to know what lessons had been learned by the planning department and whether new procedures are now in place to ensure the wishes of elected councillors are fully reflected in the planning policy and approach.
Council chief executive Rodney Stone confirmed it was the duty of planning officers to consider applications and make professional recommendations to councillors. Councillors then must consider the recommendation in the light of their local knowledge and the letters received about the proposed development.
He said: "In this case the councillors rejected the professional advice given and the matter went to appeal."
"The council lost this appeal and the inspector granted planning permission for the development and awarded costs against the borough council on the grounds the council had behaved unreasonably in its rejection of the application."
What went wrong with the Telephone House Planning Applications?
The uneasy questions to the Chief Executive Rodney Stone and other senior officers of TWBC
|Whom are we dealing with ? - The developers of Telephone House, Tunbridge Wells|
|A guide through Tunbridge Wells Local Press since August 2000 - "The Telephone House Debacle"|