In my dealings with the council there is often a sense of Alice in Wonderland, and my latest dealings with them are no exception.
This particular rabbit hole related to scrutiny and cabinet decisions, I wasn’t happy about some aspects of the last Thursdays cabinet decision relating to The Royal Sands development on The Pleasurama site in Ramsgate, so I thought I would ask for the decision to be called in.
My understanding here is that the council have an overview and scrutiny panel, this is made up of councillors who are not cabinet members and one of their functions is to call in cabinet decisions for review. Now obviously the councillors are representatives of us the Thanet ward constituents, also there is a good chance that none of your ward councillors is a member of this panel. It further follows that there must be some way that us the electors and council taxpayers must have some way of initiating this call in process. Anyway after trying and failing on the councils website, to find a form, I had a look at the new localism act and this seems to say that yes councils should set up some way so that it is possible to initiate a call in. further googling showed that a lot of councils have some sort of process whereby the electorate can use this panel of councillors that are supposed to represent them.
Thanet District Council don’t seem to have any system on their website for initiating a call in, so in the end I started emailing the individual members of the panel using the contact details on the council’s website. If you have any doubts about how difficult this sort of thing is, go onto the council’s website http://www.thanet.gov.uk and try and find who is on this panel from the homepage.
Anyway I started to email the individual councillors thus:
“Hi ***, there are a couple of aspects relating to the Royal Sands decision that I am not entirely happy about, so I am approaching you as a member of scrutiny in the hope of getting the decision called in.
As the last date for call in is the 3rd August and I have never requested the call in of a decision, so don’t know what the procedure is or even if it is possible, so I need your help.
Primarily I am concerned that since the planning application for the Royal Sands was approved the site has been designated by the Environment Agency as “high flood risk” this designation relates storm flooding and damage during a combination of high tide and storm.
My understanding is that during the closed cabinet meeting some cabinet and shadow cabinet members attempted to get a flood risk assessment included in the re negotiation of the development agreement. I am not sure, but I don’t think they were successful, difficult to properly assess when this sort of decision is made in a closed meeting.
I don’t think the issue of the safety of the residents of a new Thanet development should be something discussed in closed session, the problem has been outlined by The Environment Agency, this link takes you to their letter about it http://www.michaelsbookshop.com/ea/id2.htm
The other aspect although of much less importance that the safety of local residents may also be of interest, and this is that the process of disposing of the site from the 199 year leases issued in 2006 to the sale of the freehold now don’t seem to have been subject to the normal asset disposal process.
Best regards Michael”
Best regards Michael”
Well I got to Jodie Hibbert and found there were no contact details for her and gave up.
The next day I though as this is an important issue I would contact the officer in charge of the panel, only to be told he was on leave until after the call in deadline.
So the I decided I would email the chief executive, here is the email
“Subject; The system the council has for triggering a call in
Good afternoon Sue, me again I’m afraid, this time it’s the cabinet decision to go ahead with The Royal Sands without a flood risk assessment.
As you are probably aware the Environment Agency wrote to the council strongly recommending a flood risk assessment in Feb 2008 and in the period during which the new development agreement has been negotiated I have tried to persuade officers and cabinet members to insist that this basic safety precaution in part of the new agreement.
I think the key issues here are that when the planning application was approved the building was to have been founded on driven piles into the bedrock, the subsequent cliff survey said that this wouldn’t be safe because of the vibration, so the developer agreed to use bored piles into the bedrock, this was subsequently changed in 2010 to shallow foundations on sand that is behind an 1860 sea defence, without any maintenance or survey record.
In layman’s terms, the development is next to the sea, founded on sand and isn’t screwed down.
Anyway information is slowly leaking my way about the secret part of last weeks cabinet meeting, to the effect that councillors asked for a flood risk assessment and officers told them that they couldn’t have one.
As the site is an EA designated high risk flood zone, meaning that any new development constructed on it without a flood risk assessment will be to a greater or lesser degree be blighted and in view of the cabinet and shadow cabinet members request, I considered this sufficient grounds for a call in.
I then tried to grapple with the council’s call in procedure, I tried emailing members of scrutiny sent the following to;
Councillor Ian Driver (Chairman)
Councillor Neil Hornus
Councillor Thomas King
Councillor Mrs Julie Marson
Councillor Pat Moore
Councillor David Saunders
Councillor William Scobie
Councillor Michael Tomlinson
Councillor John Watkins
***the email is already above so I have scrubbed it out here***
Then I got to Councillor Jodie Hibbert, no email address was published on the council’s website so I tried democratic services, it seems that the officer who runs the scrutiny committee is on leave until after the call in date.
I gather that the localism bill makes provision for councils to publish there own system for a member of the public or a local group to trigger a call in, but neither the council’s website nor the officers I have spoken to seem to be clear about this.
Could you please let me know what if any system the council has for triggering a call in and in this instance either ensure that the decision is called in or provide me with some reason why it won’t be?
Best regards Michael”
I didn’t, still haven’t got any reply from the chief executive, perhaps she is on leave too.
I did get an email from the officer who was supporting the development at cabinet.
Here it is:
I understand that you have been in contact with the Council's Democratic Services section in relation to call in procedures following Cabinet.
I also understand that you have left your number in relation to a potential call from me in relation to this issue, but I think it more appropriate to email.
Clearly I cannot provide specific advice in relation to call in arrangements as this is not my area of expertise, though I understand the arrangements for this have been explained by the officer to whom you spoke.
On the specifics of this issue, despite our long conversation in relation to flood risks, I am not going to instigate a call in for this item on this basis. I know your arguments in relation to this issue, as you set them out eloquently to me the other day, but even with this in mind I do not think it appropriate for me to seek a call in in relation to my own report.
Obviously the bloke who wrote the cabinet report is about the least appropriate council officer to call the thing in, so I emailed him thus:
“Mark my assumption is that it would be highly inappropriate for you to ask for a call in on an issue where you were the advising officer.
The substance of my phone call to democratic services was that I had been trying to email all the members of scrutiny tying to obtain assistance in initiating a call in when I got to Jodie Hibbert whose email address wasn’t published on the council website, so I phoned democratic services.
I was told that the officer supporting the scrutiny group was on leave until after the call in date, that the officer who I spoke to didn’t know the criteria for and didn’t know how a member of the public initiated a call in and that an officer who did know would call me back.
My guess is that no one knows the rules under the localism act and so it landed on your desk.
Best regards Michael”
In the meantime I have received replies from two of the members of scrutiny I contacted, one from the chair, who we shall call Goldmember in the circumstances.
And one from a lady member, both are now trying to get the decision called in.
"The Pleasurama development gained planning consent prior to the publication of the latest government guidance on development and flood risk, PPS25. When we were consulted in 2003 our floodplain maps did not show the site to be at risk and the design, at that stage, had clear evacuation routes to the top of the cliff. But, having received revised plans for the development last year, we highlighted our concern over flood risk and recommended that a site-specific flood risk assessment be undertaken. This would inform appropriate mitigation measures such as recommended floor levels, flood resilient design and an evacuation plan to ensure that the development is made as safe as possible."
The reason that I want the thing called in is the flood assessment issue and frankly the underlying problem here is trying to get the officers, members of the last Conservative Cabinet and now members of this new Labour Cabinet understand that this is a fundamental safety issue and the only person qualified to comment on it is the Environment Agency’s technical specialist.
My attempts to communicate this to current cabinet members seem to roughly rebound as though it is me and not a qualified expert calling for this, and as though the experts in the field are the council officers, who as far as I understand have no related qualifications.
Back in 2008 after I had read the EAs letter I discussed this with one of the senior council officers who was in charge of the department dealing with the Pleasurama development. He implied that the EAs engineer was young and female and so I shouldn’t put much credence in what she had written, so I got Laura Sandys who was meeting with the most senior EA officer for the southeast to ask them for the official EA position, here is the quote from her email to me, saying what these EA officers had to say.
I will ramble on here.