It’s a secret

Of all of the functions of Preston City Council, planning is arguably the most important.

Planning decisions have an impact on all of us, both individually and as a community. So we should  have a say in what goes on in the city.

Central government believes this. Its “Planning Portal” states:-

“Without a planning system everyone could construct buildings or use land in any way they wanted, no matter what effect this would have on other people who live and work in their area.

“Your local planning authority is responsible for deciding whether a development – anything from an extension on a house to a new shopping centre – should go ahead.

“Citizens can take an active part in decisions affecting them and their communities.

“Personal involvement in planning requires access to information and a willingness to contribute an opinion, either as an individual or in a group.

Most processes run to timetables so it is important to make your views, sometimes called ‘representations’, known in good time.”

“Access to information” means that:-

  1. You need to be made aware of a planning application.
  2. You need to able to access all of the Council’s records so that you can consider everything relevant to the application – not just the application itself.

You may already be aware of one of the mechanisms by which a local authority informs residents of a planning application which may affect them – it is by sending a letter which gives details of an application, where and how the detail of the application can be inspected, the date by which representations must be received and so on. There are also other methods, such as a notice attached to street furniture and a notice in the press.

Up until the summer of 2016 the Council operated a paper file regime. It then changed to an online regime, whereby applications can be viewed online. A local authority which operates an online regime must comply with the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015. The Order can be accessed here – the relevant paragraph is number 15.

But there is no need to read it – what it says is that it obligatory for a local authority to publicise planning applications so that, as the government intends, residents can be made aware of them and can make representations.

The only problem is that the Council failed to do so. Worse still, when specifically asked to do so, it refused.

On 7 February 2017, WIPCUT wrote to Alison Kershaw, the Deputy Director of Development and the person responsible for the day-to-day management of the planning department in these terms (the emphasis in the emails which follow is WIPCUT’s):-

“In my email of 30/10/16 at 20:19, I asked you, in relation to 06/2016/0893, to place on the website the documentation that invariably formed part of the planning file when such files were maintained in paper form.  I described some of these documents and specifically referred to the consultation letter. 

“You replied by your email of 7/11/16 at 09:58 that you would not be placing these documents (including the consultation letter) on the council’s website.

“In correspondence from the Minister of State for Housing and Planning and Minister for London, I have been directed to The Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015, which states at paragraph 15 (7) that it is obligatory for you to publish on the website the address of a proposed development, the description of the proposed development, the date by which representations about the application must be made, where and when the application may be inspected, how representations may be made about the application and (in the case of a householder application) making it clear that the representations will be passed to the Secretary of State if there is an appeal and that there will be no further opportunity to make representations.

“In short, all the information that is contained in the standard consultation letter with which I am familiar from my perusal of planning files in paper form.

“Can you please tell me why Preston City Council has deliberately failed to comply with this Order?”

 

So when in October 2016 WIPCUT had asked  Alison Kershaw to place information on the website, it did so because it just wanted to know – it was unaware of the statutory requirement. But of course Alison Kershaw should have known; it beggars belief that she did not until WIPCUT told her.

In view of the Council’s later “excuse” about its failure (see below), the following exchange of emails with the Council is relevant. As with matters of this kind, the devil is in the detail, but despite their length, worth a read.

The email exchanges began on 2 January 2017 and ended on 23 January (i.e. before WIPCUT knew about the statutory obligation) concerning an application relating to 114 Watling Street Road.

 

WIPCUT wrote:-

“This application has appeared on the weekly list dated 21 December 2016. There is no documentation relating to it available on the website.

Please immediately place all documentation relating to this application on the website and let me know when you have done so. Also please confirm that the time for making representations will not  begin to run until the time when you have told me that all the documentation has been placed on the website.”

The Council replied:-

“The documentation is now available to view online, the deadline for representations is the 24th January 2017.”

WIPCUT wrote:-

Can you please put on the website a copy of the consultation letter so that all interested residents (and not just me) know by when representations need to be submitted

The Council replied:-

I can advise you that the Planning Department does not provide copies of neighbour notification letters on the Council’s website. Other residents who have received a neighbour notification letter will already be aware of the deadline for representations to be made. If any other parties wish to know the deadline, they can enquire directly to us and we will advise them accordingly.

 WIPCUT wrote:-

“The difference between this application and others is that the application was listed without any supporting documentation two days before the extended Christmas and New Year holiday closure. So for those who look at the weekly lists the usual procedures,  ie 21 days from the publication of the application, could not apply because no one looking at the weekly lists could know what the application was about other than its bare description. So in the interest of openness and transparency, once the planning department had placed the application on the website, following my request of 2/1/17, it could and should, in order to avoid any misapprehension, have made public the consultation letter.

I want to see the consultation letter. Please send it to me.

The Council replied:-

Preston City Council no longer publish neighbour consultation letters. I am not sending you a copy of the consultation letter. You are already aware of the nature of the planning application and the deadline for representations.”

 

But then in February 2017 WIPCUT told Alison Kershaw about the statutory requirement. Suddenly, the Council changed its tune. The Governance Officer, Patricia Ashcroft, replied to WIPCUT’S letter of 7 February:-

However, your points regarding information to be published on the website, as detailed in your letter of 7th February, are noted. Contrary to your assertion, the absence of neighbour notification letters from the website was not a deliberate failure but an oversight and has now been rectified.”

 

Work out for yourself whether this failure was deliberate or not. Was it a failure at all?

 

It looks to WIPCUT as a deliberate policy –

Preston City Council no longer publish neighbour consultation letters. I am not sending you a copy of the consultation letter.”

 

What it certainly was not was an “oversight”. An oversight is an unintentional failure to do something. It cannot be an oversight if you have a deliberate policy.

 

WHAT HAS BEEN THE EFFECT OF THIS FAILURE?

The effect has been that the Council processed 483 planning applications without the obligatory public notification.

Worse still, it failed again when dealing with representations it received. The most convenient way to submit a representation is by completing it online –  for each planning application there is a link to a page where one can submit a representation. When the Council adopted the online regime for planning applications in the summer of 2016 the page for submitting a representation stated that representations would be treated in complete confidence. That was wrong. If one submits a representation on a planning application that representation is not confidential. But 502 residents submitted representations believing them to be confidential when they were not.

 

WHAT IS PRESTON COUNCIL UP TO?

It was keeping secret information which it should have published and told residents that public information was confidential when it was not. In short, a shambles.

 

But don’t worry the Council itself thinks it is doing a grand job:-

“We believe that the planning process is open and transparent”.

Alison Kershaw in November 2016

Mrs Patricia Ashcroft, the Governance Officer, subsequently confirmed that “We” describes the whole of the Council.

 

 “Ms Kershaw is an experienced, trustworthy and honest officer who, as Deputy Director, leads the planning service by example”.

Chris Hayward in February 2017

 

Preston has “a planning department that we should be proud of…they are doing very well”

Peter Rankin at the Cabinet meeting on 24 January 2018

 

So that’s all right then.