Yesterday evening we attended the Waverley Joint Planning Committee meeting. Out of curiosity.
After 2.5 hrs of listening to the proceedings unfolding before us, there were two things that stuck in our mind.
Environmental Protection and Professional Attitude (or lack of both)
The first planning application on the agenda involved building a housing development near ancient woodland (irreplaceable habitat according to government policy).
Under the previously granted planning permission, the developer had damaged ancient woodland and mature trees. And built a petrol station right next to ancient woodland which they had not been given permission for.
The developer is really sorry and after much discussion with the planning officers the developer agreed to compensate for it by planting trees. Although ancient woodland is irreplaceable habitat. But hey. Damage is already done right? What can we do?
So now they are proposing to increase the number of dwellings by converting some of the bigger houses into smaller houses so overall you cram more people into the same space (sounds familiar much?).
Now the best bit – the developer is also under criminal investigation for breaching environmental protection laws.
This fact was rather painfully drawn out of the planning officers by a persistent councillor who – it was obvious – is not a favourite with them.
One could wonder if this is because of his presumption to allow himself to ask uncomfortable questions (see below).
During the discussion about the planning application, one thing really jumped out. It was the amount of concern that councillors expressed over loss of irreplaceable habitat – the ancient woodland.
Well. Here is a surprise.
Application was approved with 15 votes for and 2 against, 1 abstention. Not even deferred to wait for outcomes of criminal investigation.
We wonder – how high on councillors’ agendas environmental protection REALLY is?
Professional attitude (and lack of mutual respect)
There was one thing that stuck out as a sore thumb last night. That was the exchanges between the councillors and the planning officers in the room.
In relation to the breach of the laws, the planning officers emphasised about 5 times that criminal investigation is a completely separate matter to the planning application.
So they should be looked at in isolation.
In the same way that someone who is under investigation for money laundering and financial crime offences can continue to operate all their bank accounts undisturbed. Right?
Here is our overall impression.
The planning officers call the shots.
What they say should be taken as an irrefutable fact. If someone dares to question them, they will be shut down. Burnt alive. Condemned to eternal damnation.
If they say they have documents available and are legally compliant, you should take that as the absolute truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Absolutely no supporting evidence is required, even when councillors really do need to see it in order to be able to make an informed decision. And a legal one, to start with.
Mutual respect? Absent.
Here is why.
Taking a step back
What the public would normally (hopefully?) expect from the Planning Committee is a well informed, professional discussion, based on data sets and analysis which is as objective as possible in the circumstances.
Councillors would be asking questions, planning officers would respond, there would be disagreements, debates, compromises, a lot of hm-ing and ah-ing, head shaking and frustration, but at the end councillors would come to vote roughly in line with what they expressed as their concerns or in line with positives they see arising from the planning application they are assessing. Most importantly, the decisions would be made on a well informed basis.
And the outcome would be visibly the best possible option – not just for the developer and land owner, but for the public, the environment and for the future residents living in those developments.
That’s theory. But what ACTUALLY happened last night?
The issue of the developer being under criminal investigation for breach of environmental protection laws was raised a couple of times by different councillors.
One councillor had the audacity to push the issue, after the first fob-off attempt by the planning officers failed.
He even had the presumption to suggest the planning permission should be deferred until the outcome of the investigation is known.
What was he told by the head planning officer? This is the quote:
“The investigation and the application are two completely different processes. All you need to be concerned about this evening is the application before you…”
I.e. – ignore the criminal investigation, shut up and vote in favour of the planning application as we expect you to.
Let’s look at this from a different angle.
Imagine you are the head of sales for a very well known private company. Some time ago you gave the green light for the company to enter into a contract with a big, strategically important client.
Suddenly you become aware that this client is being investigated for money laundering and financial crime offences.
At the same time the client approaches you with the proposal to do more business with your company.
The client apologises profoundly for the inconvenience of having to deal with this criminal investigation, explains it is all a mistake and there is nothing to worry about.
You face the decision – do you sign an additional contract immediately and risk the reputational damage, and getting dragged into the criminal investigation, or do you wait for the outcome of criminal investigation to become known?
What would YOU do?
Yesterday the head planning officer of Waverley Borough Council clearly steered the decision in one direction and the business deal was done despite criminal investigation being under way.
It begs the question – for whose benefit are these planning decisions made?
And the question for the public – are we willing to put up with this and let them continue with destruction of our own natural habitat?
What do you think?