Flintshire councillors defend planning officer subjected to ‘witch hunt’ during planning meeting
Leading councillors in Flintshire have leapt to the defence of an officer, who they said was subjected to a “witch hunt” during a meeting on a controversial housing development.
Flintshire Council’s planning committee met yesterday (Wednesday 2 December) to discuss proposals to build 80 houses on land at Coppy Farm in Gwernaffield, near Mold.
The plans were recommended for refusal by officers amid concerns over what they described as a “speculative development”, with a total of 92 letters of objection submitted by members of the public.
However, a row broke out during the virtual meeting over an e-mail sent to the developers behind the scheme by case officer James Beattie in advance of the application being put forward.
In the message, which was highlighted by an agent acting on behalf of the Bromfield Group, Mr Beattie said: “It is still my informal opinion that the development is acceptable in principle.”
Although his comments were made before the submission of the plans in January last year, which he said were later changed, some councillors called for the item to be deferred for the matter to be looked into.
The council’s former deputy leader Bernie Attridge even questioned whether the issue should be referred to the police, despite no apparent evidence of wrongdoing being presented.
The Connah’s Quay central representative said: “The fundamental issue here is that pre-planning advice was sought, and the view of a senior planning officer was taken.
“On the back of that advice from a senior planner, the application was submitted into Flintshire County Council.
“Although the officer is saying there was a fundamental change, can the officer tell us when he had that meeting if he confirmed that it was a no go from the outset due to the position.
“Fairness is needed here. I did write to Matt Georgiou (council planning solicitor) seeking an urgent investigation or maybe a referral to North Wales Police.
“My concern is how something so fundamental as a policy can be okay at the beginning of the discussion and now it’s here in front of planning it’s totally different.”
In its application, the Bromfield Group said the plans would deliver an economic boost to the area, as well as a number of social benefits, including housing for couples and families.
Their comments came despite a campaign group called “Gwernaffield Says No” being set up in opposition to the scheme due to fears over the impact on local services.
Some committee members supported Cllr Attridge’s calls for a deferral, including Cllr Mike Peers, who leads the Independent Alliance opposition group on the council.
He said: “It seems very bizarre that there seems to be an informal agreement that the applicant was led to believe that it may be worth putting this in, but from what we’re hearing it was totally inadequate because it doesn’t meet any of the policies.
“Then the officer is saying to put it in because in principle it’s okay.
“I share the view that there are issues other than planning relating to this.”
Speaking in defence of his actions, Mr Beattie said the agent acting on the company’s behalf had provided a summary of events which was out of context and “factually incorrect”.
The officer said he also had e-mails which could verify his version of how the process unfolded.
He said: “In terms of pre-application advice and why things appear to have changed, what actually happened is there were some informal discussions about broad principles with no details given.
“I didn’t actually see the application until it was submitted. I didn’t know how many units it was or the lay out – I didn’t know any of those facts.
“From my point of view, there’s been no undue influence on myself and I’m quite happy to stand by my decision now and things I’ve said in the past.
“Part of my role is to enter into discussions to facilitate development and if people want to understand things slightly differently to what I say then that’s up to them.”
He was backed by Cllr Derek Butler, cabinet member for economic development, who said: “Can I ask that we put some confidence to the officer who’s addressed these issues fulsomely here because there seems to have been a bit of a witch hunt here and it’s in public.
“The officer has had to answer the same question I don’t know how many times quite frankly.
“I have confidence in my officer and the responses we’ve had today.”
He was also joined by cabinet member for planning Chris Bithell in expressing his support for Mr Beattie.
He said: “A lot has been said about what was said on another occasion, but at the end of the day we have to make the decision on the application and the report that is before us.
“With much of the pre-application discussions, officers have to be polite and they have to be considerate in dealing with applicants and agents and do so in a civil way.
“It is all done without prejudice and has to be done on that basis.
“It is not until the whole application has been considered in detail with all the submissions made by outside agencies and members of the public that the actual report can be published in full.”
The bid by Cllr Attridge to defer consideration of the application was defeated during the meeting.
Committee members later went on to to refuse the plans with twelve votes in favour of the officer’s recommendation and five abstentions.
Liam Randall – Local Democracy Reporter (more here). Spotted something? Got a story? Send a Facebook Message | A direct message on Twitter | Email: News@Deeside.com