Investigation into the Telephone House Planning Application


Minutes of SPECIAL OPERATIONAL SERVICES BOARD

Tuesday 27 November 2001

Present: Councillor Oliver-Smith (Chairman)
Councillors Cload, Neve, Noakes, Mrs Paulson-Ellis, Poile (Substitute), Rusbridge (Substitute), Veitch and Weeden
* Non-Board Members present: Councillor Baker (J), Fletcher, Price and Wakefield

APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE
155/01 The Borough Secretary and Solicitor reported apologies for absence from Councillors Mrs Blackburn, Mrs Catt, Cunningham and Young.

PART I

RECOMMENDATION REQUIRING CONFIRMATION BY COUNCIL - TELEPHONE HOUSE PLANNING APPLICATION

156/01

The Director of Operational Services presented a report (OPS/01/11/18) which gave Members the results of his investigation into the appeal against the Council's decision on the Telephone House, Church Road, Royal Tunbridge Wells planning application. The Planning Inspectorate's decision letters were attached as appendices to the report. A letter from Mrs Topliss representing the Telephone House Neighbours' Association had previously been circulated to Members and Mrs Topliss also addressed the Board.

The Director of Operational Services, in introducing his report, stressed that he had not been at the meeting of the Western Area Planning Committee at which the planning application had been considered and neither had he attended the planning inquiry. The conclusions he had arrived at had been reached as a result of information and evidence gathered from officers and Members, whom he thanked for their co-operation, and from the Inspector's reports. He also stressed that it had been an internal investigation with no evidence sought from third parties and was a genuine attempt to establish lessons which could be learnt and was not intended to apportion blame.

He then addressed the points raised by Mrs Topliss, a number of which indicated a misunderstanding of the very complicated planning process:-

    Point 1 of THNA: - Point 7 and 29
    It was clear to all who were present in the Council Chamber at the Western Area Planning Committee meeting of October 2000, (and Mr Haynes was not present) that the Committee were minded to refuse the planning application for almost identical reasons to those given by officers when refusing the first application, as was specifically suggested by Cllr Mills.
    Mr Eveleigh publicly told the Members of the WAPC that they could not use the same reasons for refusing the second application as they had been used for refusing the first application.

  1. J.H. TWBC: reasons for refusal must be the most appropriate for that particular application and are not precluded from use by having been used on a prior occasion;

    Point 2 of THNA: - Point 14
    The report fails to mention that officers instructed the applicant not to meet with residents, at any stage, which would easily have avoided the second planning application refusal and subsequently the costly inquiry

  2. J.H. TWBC: of great concern was her belief that the applicant had been instructed not to meet with residents which was totally incorrect; developers were free to discuss the application with whoever they wished and in fact they had discussed the matter with the Civic Society post-application;

    Point 3 of THNA: - Point 15
    Applicants and residents will benefit by the non-participation of officers in consultation meetings

  3. J.H. TWBC: it was proposed that the Council should encourage and facilitate stakeholder involvement earlier in the planning process;

    Point 4 of THNA: - Point 43
    In the Statement of Common Ground for the Public Inquiry the case officer negotiated out the grounds for refusal which the Members of the WAPC considered having formed part of their reasons to refuse the planning application. It appears no Councillor was shown the Statement of Common Grounds before dispatch to the Inspector.

  4. J.H. TWBC: the Statement of Common Ground was a new procedural requirement intended to identify and establish which areas were matters of contention and which were agreed and this statement flowed from the reasons for refusal given by the Committee;

    Point 5 of THNA: - Policy H6(a) - Local Plan Draft Review
    Officers and Members drew up Policy H6(a) in entire contradiction to the actual refusal of planning permission by Members on 18th October 2000 and the Inspector used Policy H6(a) as a reason for allowing the appeal.
    Policy H6(a) was leaked to Crest Nicholsonís agent Barton Willmore prior to its adoption by the Operational Services Board on 10th May.
    The impact of Policy H6(a) has nowhere been addressed in Mr Haynesí report

  5. J.H. TWBC: with regard to the references to Planning Policy 6(a), the application which officers recommended be approved and the Inspector did approve on appeal, was consistent with Policy H6 as it appeared in the draft Local Plan. The first day of the draft Local Plan actually appearing in the public arena coincided with the last day of the public inquiry and the developer made the Inspector aware of it immediately by letter which was also copied to the Council.

    Point 6 of THNA: - Points 46 and 47
    Although Mr Haynes professes to avoid the issue of blame he squarely places it at Membersí feet when it should be at officersí.

  6. J.H. TWBC: NO COMMENT !

In conclusion, with respect to the way forward for considering in detail the ideas developed in the report, it was recommended that this task be undertaken by the Best Value Review Team which was due to undertake a Best Value review of the Development Control Service. This would ensure that the ideas were properly tested in all respects and, if adopted, would be integrated irrto a comprehensive continuous improvement plan.

Members then discussed the way in which the Council's witnesses were selected; the fact that although the reasons for refusal were significant and material planning reasons, they could be regarded as more subjective than other reasons as they related to listed building and environmental issues, (the reasons for refusal incorporated into the Council's decision notice were read out at the meeting); the need to involve stakeholders more fully; and the need for training and development for Members together with officers to promote the relationship between them and to build mutual confidence. Members' attention was drawn to the Nolan Committee on standards in public life and to "Probity in Planning" which recommended that Members serving on planning committees receive adequate training, something which needed to be developed further; Members would be more effective if they had a clearer understanding of their roles. It was also established that everyone had had an opportunity to have their say in what was a public forum and all arguments had been tested before an independent party. Members also discussed the way counsel are selected for similar inquiries and they were advised that counsel was chosen on the basis of the best person for the job, money itself not being the determining issue. Members expressed concern at the government's anticipated proposals which might reduce the Council's powers with regard to planning matters but it was agreed that these should be the subject of a report to the Board after full analysis and consultation on the detailed proposals when released.

In accordance with Standing Order 50, three Members of the Council asked that the following recommendations be referred to full Council for determination.

RECOMMENDED -

  1. That the report be received and noted; and

  2. That the report be referred to the Development Control Best Value Review Team for detailed consideration as part of the forthcoming Best Value Review exercise. In terms of Standing Order 18, Councillor Neve requested that it be recorded in the minutes that he abstained from voting.




Bizarrely, Policy H6(a) allocated for Telephone House was identical to the two refused planning applications for the Telephone House development.
[1st: refused at delegated officers' level - 2nd: refused by the Councillors of the Western Area Planning Committee].
Policy H6(a) is the most controversial document, produced by the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, leading to the Telephone House Debacle.

What went wrong with the Telephone House Planning Applications?
The uneasy questions to the Chief Executive Rodney Stone and other senior officers of TWBC

The questions are still unanswered - they are as intriguing as 2 years ago.
April 2002 - CALA Homes bought this planning application.
With an ever increasing awareness of the flaws in the design? - Foundations for sustainable and viable development?

TWBC Internal Inquiry into the Telephone House Debacle