Planning Probity Correspondence: April 2010

For the record, we reproduce below emails sent to us by Vanessa Gregory recounting correspondence with Council concerning the probity of the recent planning referrals meeting (I have removed all explicit email addresses and have also removed the names of some recipients from the Cc lines, but otherwise the text and emphasis is unedited; all of the mails below included at least one member of the press as a recipient):

From: Vanessa Gregory
Sent: 20 April 2010 22:36
To: Councillor R Donald; Cllr J Daly; Cllr R Mills; Daniel Goodwin
Cc: [...]
Subject: Probity in planning re Westminster Lodge


Dear Councillors and Mr Goodwin


Firstly I want to make it absolutely clear that I write this with no political motivation, as always my prime concern is this city and its reputation.  


It is due to extreme disappointment in the leadership of this council that I felt compelled to write the letter I attach, which I have sent to Mr Adams, editor of The Herts Advertiser for his consideration.  Our local newspapers, thankfully, remain the champions of the people. Our voices are heard, issues debated through their pages, on matters which sometimes our politicians seem deaf.  Therefore I make no apology in approaching the people’s forum in the first instance.  


In the letter I state I would be forwarding a copy to you all in the hope that you will seriously consider the deep concerns and disappointment I harbour.  I know I am not alone in my concerns and also include Peter Trevelyan chairman of St Albans Civic Society within this circulation. 


In the document I refer to in the letter it states: “The successful operation of the planning system relies on mutual trust and understanding of each other’s role. It also relies on each ensuring that they act in a way which is not only fair and impartial but is also clearly seen to be so”.  You may be acting within the law but in many eyes not within the spirit of the law and in my view these are inseparable. 

As some of you may be aware, I took my complaint to The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman over what I believed were important failings within the Planning Inspectorate, including what I believe was “a tactical advantage” to the appellant over the rail freight appeal process.  I would not have committed so much time and effort if I did not take planning issues and indeed democracy extremely seriously.


That is why I strongly urge the council to reflect on the path you have taken in preparing to hold a highly political and contentious planning meeting during what should be local government purdah.  I believe this council’s politicians, with the acquiescence of officers now are trying to gain “tactical advantage” and this warrants a similar fight if necessary.


I believe the council is being reckless with the reputation of this city, and I strongly urge you to pull back, even at this eleventh hour and respect this time, when power is back in the hands of the people you seek to serve.




Vanessa Gregory 


PS I also include Councillor Beric Read, chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Public Services committee, as this is related to the two e-mails I sent him in February and March and to which I still await an answer.

From: Rebecca Simpson [...] On Behalf Of Daniel Goodwin
Sent: 22 April 2010 10:11
To: Vanessa Gregory; Councillor R Donald; Cllr J Daly; Cllr R Mills
Cc: [...]
Subject: RE: Probity in planning re Westminster Lodge


Dear Vanessa,


Thank you for your e-mail.  I would like to take the opportunity to address the points that it raises.


All planning applications are dealt with on their planning merits in accordance with the development plan and all other material planning considerations. All planning applications including those submitted by the Council are dealt with in the same manner. There is no purdah period for taking decisions on planning applications. The application was registered on 10 February 2010 and is to be reported to Committee on 28 April in accordance with the usual 13 week period for determination. The date of 28 April was selected by the Head of Planning following advice by the Council's Monitoring Officer.  I can confirm that there has been no political pressure of any kind on Council officers to choose any particular date by any particular party.  Your suggestion that the date has been selected by the Council's politicians for a tactical advantage is therefore wrong and without any foundation.  Planning Committees do not decide planning applications on political grounds.


The meeting will be taking place on 28 April as planned and all members of the Council have in the past received appropriate advice on how they should deal with any conflicts of interest.  This may be repeated in the meeting should they ask for it.


Yours sincerely,


Daniel Goodwin

Chief Executive, St Albans City & District Council

From: Vanessa Gregory
Sent: 22 April 2010 12:21
To: 'Daniel Goodwin'; 'Councillor R Donald'; 'Cllr J Daly'; 'Cllr R Mills'
Cc: [...]
Subject: RE: Probity in planning re Westminster Lodge


Dear Daniel


Thank you for your reply.


I am sorry to say I believe, on this occasion, you are being rather obtuse on the points I am making.  I believe recent events should have given all of those serving the public pause for thought.  Just to tell us the rules are being adhered to is insufficient, and quite frankly, it doesn’t wash anymore!  The public’s perception should be of equal importance and taken into consideration when making decisions: given where we are now in this case, the timing of the planning meeting on applications submitted by the council.  


I reiterate and quote from the Local Government Association’s ‘Probity in planning document’ yet again; “The successful operation of the planning system relies on mutual trust and understanding of each other’s role. It also relies on each ensuring that they act in a way which is not only fair and impartial but is also clearly seen to be so”.  Even if there is the merest hint that the timing of this meeting could be perceived as not being fair or impartial should have sent alarm bells ringing within this council; clearly and sadly for the reputation of this city, it has not.


As the planning meeting will be held in public, the council, including councillors on the committee will be open to scrutiny as to whether fair-minded and informed observers, having considered the facts, conclude that there was a real possibility of bias within the process and deliberations of these particular planning applications submitted by the council.  If they feel they have cause for concern after observing, complaint to the appropriate bodies will naturally be open to them.


However, of course, unless residents have sufficient funds to take the planning decisions to judicial review they will of course stand.


In the publics’ eyes will this seem fair and unimpeachable – I think not. 


There is no shame in reevaluating the decision; therefore I urge you, fellow officers and all councillors to think again on this matter and consider if putting the meeting back by a couple of weeks would be a more prudent decision.


Yours sincerely


Vanessa Gregory

From: Vanessa Gregory
Sent: 25 April 2010 22:13
To: 'Daniel Goodwin'; 'Councillor R Donald'; 'Cllr J Daly'; 'Cllr R Mills'
Cc: [...]
Subject: FW: Probity in planning re Westminster Lodge


Dear Mr Goodwin


I refer to my letter in last weeks Herts Advertiser and our exchange of e-mails of last week, see below; it gives me no pleasure that my letter was seemingly extremely prescient.


In the attached PDF file, past to me by a local resident, you will see a photo of Councillor Martin Frearson, vice chairmen of the planning referrals committee and others, in a Liberal Democrat leaflet distributed in Verulam Ward last week with the banner “….inspect the start of work on the new swimming pool”.  The statement I feel is quite categorical and I believe misrepresents the facts but also gives an impression of prejudgement.  The accompanying article alludes to a path but the banner on the photo does not.  “…No political pressure of any kind” you say in your e-mail?  “Planning Committees do not decide planning applications on political grounds” you assured me!  What would the Standards Boards test result be to the situation “would a fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, decide there is a real possibility that the councillor had predetermined the issue or was biased?” 


As Councillor Frearson was, according to the same leaflet, joint-editor I cannot believe he was unaware of the impression this was seeking to give; similar I suggest, to the headline banner on the councils own leisure document earlier in the year, “New Westminster Lodge Gets Go-Ahead”, that this was a done deal!


I believe I should not need to remind you, within the guidance of the Standards for England Board, ‘Predisposition, Predetermination or Bias, it states: “Predetermination is where a councillor’s mind is closed to the merits of any arguments which differ from their own about a particular issue on which they are making a decision, such as an application for planning permission. The councillor makes a decision on the issue without taking them all into account.

If councillors are involved in making a decision they should avoid giving the appearance that they have conclusively decided how they will vote at the meeting, such that nothing will change their mind. This impression can be created in a number of different ways such as quotes given in the press, and what they have said at meetings or written in correspondence.”

I feel therefore Councillor Frearson he has demonstrably prejudged the outcome of the planning meeting and should play no part therein.


If one so senior councillor, having served on planning committees for so many years, can allow himself to apparently fall so short on probity in planning, how many more of his colleagues, of similar political persuasions with whom he has “close association”, (see Standards Board) with less experience, will have also prejudged these applications?   


The chairman Councillor Brazier has already precluded himself of voting on the applications I believe, as he was party, as member of the cabinet, who made the decisions regarding the proposals for the new leisure facilities.  How many more will have to follow, if their election literature has followed the same line as that of Councillor Frearson?


Since writing my letter and our exchange of correspondence, it has also come to my attention that Councillors Donald and Burton have held talks with an interested party of the proposed Westminster Lodge proposals, who has apparently expressed concerns, namely the Abbey Theatre.  Not content with the meeting Councillor Donald expressed views in the Herts Advertiser that “he felt some of the theatre’s concerns could be met by conditions on the planning permission should it be given”. 


You assured me not only was there no “political pressure” in these planning applications and also that; “All planning applications including those submitted by the Council are dealt with in the same manner”.  Kindly inform me how often do two portfolio holders hold meetings with interested parties on other planning applications, rather than officers, submitted to the local planning authority and report the outcome and seemingly recommendations to that committee, in the press, ahead of the planning meeting?   Can you still stand by these views“…No political pressure of any kind”?  “Planning Committees do not decide planning applications on political grounds”?


The publics’ perception of standards in public life, as I alluded to in my previous correspondence on this matter is without question, I believe, at rock bottom.  How often we have heard rules where adhered to, but when scrutinised by the public we have concluded that morally they were just not good enough. 


It is now becoming seemingly a catalogue of poor decisions by both councillors and officers.  Personally I cannot see how this scheme can be determined by councillors and I consider the planning applications should be withdrawn forthwith by the responsible portfolio holder; to do otherwise, would, I believe, make a mockery of the planning system and the reputation of the council would be in tatters.  Or at the very least, delay the meeting until after the elections, as I fail to see the probability of the council taking the council to appeal for non determination, also I would suggest this change would only represent a blip on the planning departments’ targets.  


No matter what ones views are on the applications, I believe, there is a growing body of charges to be answered that indeed an outrageous attempt to exploit the planning system for political advantage may have taken place.


Further loss of this council’s reputation, especially in view of recent events, such as the laptop thefts should be of great concern.  To just blithely carry on the present course I believe will be viewed by many residents as irresponsible.  After all during local elections the spotlight is shone into every nook and cranny of the council by many of the electorate.  Don’t give cause for the spotlight to dwell any longer on this seemingly unedifying situation.


Yours sincerely


Vanessa Gregory

From: Rebecca Simpson [...On Behalf Of Daniel Goodwin

Sent: 26 April 2010 17:10
To: Vanessa Gregory
Cc: [...]
Subject: Planning Referrals Committee - Wednesday 28 April 2010 (Westminster Lodge)


Dear Ms Gregory


I have received a number of requests to intervene in various ways with regard to the above Planning Referrals Committee meeting. These include the following:


·        Requests to cancel or postpone the meeting because we are in the purdah period and the Westminster Lodge Development is an administration priority

·        To determine whether any members have pre-judged the application

·        To advise on whether members of the Liberal Democrat Group can sit on the committee

·        To consider whether the Portfolio Holder can chair it

·        To consider whether political pressure has been applied to officers in respect of this matter generally

·        To comment on a recent leaflet issued by the Liberal Democrat Party in Verulam Ward


Cllr Frearson has now withdrawn from the meeting in light of the concerns raised about the Liberal Democrat Verulam leaflet.


I have discussed the remainder of these matters with colleagues and my view is as follows:


·        A number of the representations aimed at securing postponement of the meeting relate to the merits of the proposed scheme, such as the size of the pool or the quality of the application rather than the decision making framework. I cannot use these as a basis for any conclusion on whether or not the meeting should go ahead. Such issues should rightly be aired at the meeting.

·        The meeting has been set in line with the appropriate timetable for such an application and should be heard on the due date. It would not be appropriate for future developers to have cause for concern that a meeting to discuss an application could be ‘bounced’ because of controversy. I therefore do not propose to seek to postpone or cancel the meeting.

·        Until the committee sits we will not know what its make-up is, members have been given advice on their attendance and participation in the meeting and will make their own decisions accordingly. I therefore do not propose to pronounce on who should attend, as it will be for each person to consider this in line with the advice given by the Monitoring Officer when doing so.

·        The Committee meeting will be held in public and members of the public will have the opportunity to witness the proceedings in person and by the webcast.

·        The Council is not responsible for literature that is published by political parties or by Councillors on behalf of their party. It is therefore for the relevant elected members to consider what their stance should be in attending and voting at the meeting.

·        No political pressure has been put on myself or other officers to come to the above conclusions in this process.


I am aware that there is further concern that the reputation of the Council as a whole could be damaged if the meeting goes ahead. I believe that this fear is one for elected members to debate and consider corporately outside the meeting. It is not for me as Chief Executive publicly to form a judgement on the stance of the political sphere of the Council’s work when the meeting has not happened. It is my role to ensure that the business of the Council is properly carried out and to help it to be conducted in an open and transparent fashion. The Committee could yet, of course, decide on a number of courses of action and until debate has been had and votes cast we cannot be certain what the outcome of the meeting will be.


The Committee will be advised by Senior Planning and Legal Officers who will provide further guidance on the above matters if requested.


Kind regards


Daniel Goodwin

Chief Executive, St Albans City & District Council

From: Lorena Carro [...] On Behalf Of Councillor R Donald

Sent: 28 April 2010 13:39
To: Cllr R Mills; JULIAN DALY
Cc: [...]; Councillor C Brazier; Vanessa Gregory; Daniel Goodwin

Subject: RE: Probity in planning re Westminster Lodge

Dear Julian/Roma


Thank you for your recent emails on the Westminster Lodge planning applications.


I have now had full briefings from Daniel Goodwin and Mike Lovelady on the various probity issues that you have raised as well as other concerns of possible predetermination which Vanessa Gregory and Peter Trevelyan, on behalf of the Civic Society, have also voiced. These have included reference to a relevant recent Court of Appeal judgment which relates very closely to the similar circumstances and issues affecting this planning application and to the important matter of the reputation of the Council. 


Following these briefings I have concluded that there are no planning or legal reasons why the Planning Referrals Committee should not meet this evening or these applications be determined by Members in the normal way and planning timetable process. Nor do I believe that the reputation of the Council will be damaged in the mind of any reasonable member of the public in possession of all the facts by going ahead now just because we are in an election period. There has been extensive public consultation on the project over the last few years and the planning applications have gone through exactly the same internal and external robust process as any ordinary applicant would have to meet. There has been no secrecy about this project or its timetable. Members have all the necessary planning information in the committee report, as well as the objectors' views, on which to reach a reasoned planning decision one way or the other at this meeting. They will, I know, act in the quasi-judicial role they have been trained to do totally impartially in debating the issues and reaching their decision.


However I do understand that Cllr.Martin Frearson will be substituted for the meeting to prevent any unfair criticism, of himself or the Council, that he has predetermined the application and has a prejudicial interest even though I do not believe he has. Committee members may of course still decide to defer the applications or the relevant senior officers withdraw them by agreement.


I hope this helps to allay your concerns on this matter and acts as reassurance.


Kind Regards.



From: Mike Lovelady [...] 
Sent: 28 April 2010 15:39
To: Councillor R Donald; ROMA MILLS; Cllr J Daly
Cc: [...]; Councillor C Brazier; Vanessa Gregory; Daniel Goodwin; [...]
Subject: RE: Probity in planning re Westminster Lodge
Importance: High

Dear Roma and Julian,

I understand that you are seeking clarification regarding Cllr Brazier's position and whether he may serve as a member of Plannning Referrals Committee. Guidance on the role of members including Cabinet members who sit on Planning Committees which determine applications by Local Authorities has been issued by the LGA. I have advised all members of the Committee on their position and sent them a copy of the guidance. Each member of the Committee should come to the meeting with an open mind and ensure that they determine the application in accordance with the Development Plan and other material planning considerations.

My colleague Charles Turner will be attending the meeting and can elaborate as required.