Planning Committee: A Law Unto Itself?

THE EDITOR of the Essex Enquirer, Neil Speight is a seasoned journalist with over thirty years experience of reporting the news.

Sometimes sitting next to him on the press benches is similar to sitting next to the late cricket legend Freddie Trueman, who used to look out from the cricket commentary box and pronounce in his broad yorkshire tones: “I do not know…. what is going on…. out there.”

Mr Speight has been a force of nature for the borough and to some extent the powers-that-be must be relieved that he is no longer the Editor of the Thurrock Gazette where his brand of award-winning firebrand journalism and demands for scrutiny was a key part of the culture of Thurrock.

If your not an opinionated journalist then you are in the wrong job. It is because you care.

YourThurrock couldn’t be at last nights Planning Committee meeting but Mr Speight was. Here, reprinted with kind permission by the Essex Enquirer is Mr Speight’s account of last nights events:

THURROCK Council’s planning committee – already a longstanding source of embarrassment, ridicule and controversy to the authority – plumbed new depths on wednesday evening when it’s chairman was forced to offer a grovelling apology to the public and agents of planning applicants.

Once more the committee found itself being directed and instructed by officers, who advised and browbeat elected councillors to throw the public out of the Council Chamber while they moved into secret session.

Angry members of the press and public were forced to loll in corridors for more than 30 minutes, twice the time committee chairman Stuart St Claire-Haslam had pledged they would be cast out, and when they returned they were told the councillors would not be debating three contentious issues, deferring them for a third or fourth time.

As editor of the Essex Enquirer, I challenged the legality of the proceedings, as the committee had gone way beyond its permitted timings without publically lifting its standing orders.

I also asked for the explanation for deferment on each of the issues which the chairman had promised before ejecting the public, but which were not voluntarily and individually forthcoming.

After a look of horror among officers and hurried, whispered conversations I was told standing orders had been lifted in the private session and that the applications – a leisure centre for Orsett Hall Hotel, a change of use for Mardyke Farm at Aveley and a two storey extension at Manor House Farm, Bulphan – had been deferred to allow councillors to be given ‘rejoinder advice.’

This despite the applications having all been running for several months and gone through up to four deferments. The two farm connected items had once been agreed by councillors but were rescinded after officers refused to action the councillors’ decisions and brought in a top barrister to rebuke them.

They were the source of the rebellion by Tory grandee Anne Cheale who won a vote of no confidence in Tory Council leader Garry Hague on the back of her anger at “officers running the Council.”

That was a frequent comment from the public gallery on wednesday evening and there were many other angry comments at the end of it.

Though personally I care not about whatever decisions are reached on all three applications, the secrecy, lack of clarity and the apparent cowardice of councillors against officers – who one source told me were threatened with standards board disciplinary action behind closed doors – are of great public concern.

Cllr St Clare-Haslam had the look of a man battered to his wits end when he apologised to the public, including people who had travelled from Manchester for the meeting, as they streamed out of the chamber.

“It’s less than satisfactory. The decision to defer should have been made a lot sooner. I personally extend my apologies,” he said.

As editor I rarely mix news reporting with comment, but feel compelled to do so after Wednesday’s shambles.

Apart from questioning the legality of the proceedings, there is clearly something very wrong with the whole Thurrock Council planning process – with ‘fault’ undoubtedly on the side of both elected members and officers of whatever discipline, planning, law or administration.

In 32 years of covering councils up and down the country I have rarely come across anything as dysfunctional as Thurrock’s planning process.

During Wednesday’s meeting Cllr St Claire-Haslam had said: “We’ve had almost a month for officers to consider this information, it would be remiss of the authority not to consider it this evening.”

Cllr Gerard Rice had said: “It’s going to look pretty rich when it is written in the paper that this authority has not looked at the applications.”

Two voices across the political divide appeared to concur but in the end councillors capitulated and the public were left to reflect on Cllr Rice’s earlier words when he said: “No wonder we lost the big planning items to the Development Corporation. This makes us a laughing stock.”

He’s not wrong – and as I quit the chamber myself in anger and frustration I could only remember that old saying – Mickey Mouse has a Thurrock Council planning wristwatch!

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