THE LONG awaited inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the presence of a lorry park on the site of the old power station in Oliver Road, West Thurrock starts today.
The presence of the Titan lorry park there has seen a number of arguments, disputes and accusations that has cast a shadow over the regeneration agenda in the borough.
The arguments had continued up until the end of last week.
Last year, we wrote an overview piece. It can be read at the bottom of this piece.
There should be many facets to emerge out of this inquiry. One thing that may emerge is whether council members over the last year had become frustrated at the slow feed of information that was supplied by council officers.
We will provide updates over the next few days.
In December 2006, a member of the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation (DC) was made aware of a “change of use” in the area that was once the Old West Thurrock Power Station but was now land occupied by the Industrial Chemicals Group. That change of use appeared to be a lorry park.
What was seen four years ago as a minor procedural issue in Oliver Road, a far flung corner of the borough, has grown into a metaphor as to whether Thurrock is ready to grow into a modern twenty-first century borough or whether it will continue to be hamstrung by parochialism and clouded by the spectre of corruption.
It is a story that will not go away.
At this juncture, we will simply report it from the point of view of a number of organisations that have become involved.
The Development Corporations Story
The DC was made aware of a “change of use” in the area that was once the Old West Thurrock Power Station but was now land occupied by Industrial Chemicals Group. That change of use appeared to be a lorry park.
The DC contacted Thurrock Council.
The clear delineation of powers meant that the DC had planning power for area of a certain size but it was the council that retained the power of enforcement.
Since the closure of the lorry park nearby there was no doubt that there was a need for a lorry park in the borough but planning rules are planning rules.
And so it began, from 2007 that the DC entered into a dialogue with the Planning Department at Thurrock Council about the Lorry Park.
The DC wrote to Thurrock Council.
The crux of the matter can be seen in correspondence that YourThurrock has seen from the DC’s Assistant Director of Planning and Strategy, Nigel Hebden to Thurrock Council Planning Officer Andrew Millard.
In the letter, Mr Hebden asks:
“Enquiries were made of the Council’s planning department as to whether planning permission had been granted for such a development prior to the Development Corporation assuming its planning powers.
“It was eventually established that no planning permission existed and the matter was raised as a query at one of the Planning Liaison Meetings.
“On 26th January 2007 the Development Corporation met on site with the Mr Austen (Industrial Chemicals) and their planning agent Mr Pooley.”
At the meeting Mr Austen stated that his company had been approached by members of the Council’s cabinet and the mayor (cllr Joy Redsell).
They had apparently encouraged the company to develop a lorry park on the site.
“It was also stated that there had been at least one meeting with senior officers from the Council and I believe that you have confirmed that this is the case.
“The lorry park has an area of about 2.5 hectares and can accommodate about 200 lorries. The scale of the development is evidently one which, if subject to a planning application is a matter that would be determined by the Development Corporation.
“You will be aware that the Service Level Agreement has certain requirements relating to pre-application discussions and the need to refer these to the Development Corporation.
“I am sure that as a responsible planning enforcement authority the Council would have envisaged that a planning application would have been sought in order to regularise matters. However the Development Corporation was not advised of these meetings let alone given the opportunity to attend.
“The matter was raised repeatedly at the Planning Liaison Meetings but to no avail. I took the matter up directly with you in March of this year and a meeting was held with the agent acting for the developer on 30th April.
“At that meeting it was understood that the developer was to be pressed as to his intentions regarding the submission of an application.
At the time of writing it would appear that the Council has still not made any written approach to the developer advising that it would appear that unauthorised development has taken place and advising of the opportunity to submit an application to regularise matters.
Thurrock Council’s Story
There are many unanswered questions as to where Thurrock Council sit in this whole story.
The key question is why have they not enforced action in respect of the lorry park?
A spokesperson said:
“One of the key tests of whether enforcement action is necessary in any case is whether, in the balance of probability, there has been “demonstrable harm” caused to neighbours.
“This is usually measured by receipt of complaints and until recently there had been no complaints about the use of the West Thurrock Power Station site”.
For two years, once a week, the DC, an organisation with government-backing, have pointed out that the lorry park is unauthorised.
Of course many noticed that the Thurrock Council Planning Department were mightily put out when planning powers for areas over a hectare were given over to the DC and so, one wonders whether, in a fit of pique, the council have decided to drag their bureaucratic heels.
Many have found it amazing that on two occasions, council officers have gone on record to promote the Lorry Park. In 2008, Ed Vokes was quoted in Roadtransport,com advocating the use of the park.
For the council now, the chess skills must now be at their keenest?
Chair of Planning, Cllr Terry Hipsey has brought planning enforcements back on the agenda at the monthly meetings.
The Council’s Head of Strategy, Development and Environment Services, Andy Millard recently prepared a paper for the Council’s Planning Committee in July recommending enforcement action be taken against the park but with a five year period of grace before it would be actioned.
The paper was mysteriously withdrawn from the planning committee agenda in July.
The council said: “The case is due to be presented to the planning committee in the near future.”
Many believe that the lorry park would become “authorised” after four years. The council believe it is ten years, therefore, they have between now and 2016 to enforce.
The councils statement said: “The four year rule should not apply”.
The Mayor’s Story
Grays Blackshots councillor Joy Redsell was the Mayor of Thurrock between 2007 and 2008.
She has also been a regular member of the Planning Committee in Thurrock for several years.
It was the DC that questioned the actions of the Mayor in 2007.
One of the key observations made by Nigel Hebden was that from information received from ICG, the Mayor of Thurrock, at that time, cllr Joy Redsell appeared to be “encouraging the company to develop a lorry park on the site”.
Shortly after, ICG made their first donation to the Thurrock Conservative Group and soon after that, Thurrock Conservatives moved their offices to an office in the grounds of ICG at Titan Works in Hogg Lane, Grays.
Tory insiders have described Cllr Redsell as the “prime mover” in this arrangement.
Despite this, Thurrock Council’s legal team have stressed that Conservative members do not have a prejudicial interest in planning matters that involve ICG.
YourThurrock put a number of questions to Cllr Redsell. She has not replied.
The Thurrock Conservatives Story
Three years ago, the Thurrock Conservatives moved their HQ into the private grounds of the Titan Works in Hogg Lane.
From a public relations perspective, it seemed to be a strange move.
The Thurrock Conservative Association have less than 50 members but the use of the premises seemed to be restricted by just a small cabal of Tories: Ben Maney, Joy Redsell, Garry Hague, Mandy Redsell and until he left the group: Stuart St-Clair-Haslam.
From there, they used to run the website: www.thurrockconservatives.com until it was taken down a few weeks ago.
The office was also the Campaign HQ for Thurrock’s MP, Jackie Doyle-Price.
The Thurrock Conservative Association were described by insiders as a “tight-knit” bunch.
However, throughout 2009 and into 2010, Cllr Haslam developed something of a haunted look. He had taken on the role of Chair of Planning.
In January 2009, he launched an attack on officers for showing a lack of vision. As he entered the maze of who has power, green belt restrictions, site specifics etc etc. he clearly started to look like a man on the verge of a bureaucratic breakdown.
But there was clearly something about the Lorry Park and the relationship between ICG and the Thurrock Tories that troubled him.
In the agenda for January 2010 was the Local Development Framework (LDF): the document that outlined all the planning projects for the next decade and beyond.
Included in this was possible development of housing on the very site of the Titan Works, the place where the Tory HQ sat.
In January 2010 he asked the question of the “Legal Team”, at a council meeting: Whether members of the Thurrock Conservatives had to declare a prejudicial and/or personal interest when this matter arose.
In short, the answer from David Lawson was: “No”.
“There appears to be no connection between lorry parking and the well being or the financial interests of Conservative members.
Cllr Haslam countered that: “Perception was everything.” When the matter came up, he left the chamber. He was the only one to do so.
Five months later, he quit the Group and joined forces with Mayor Anne Cheale as a member of the Concerned Conservatives.
In an interview, Cllr St-Clair-Halsam described it as the tipping point.
He stands by his concerns over the whole relationship between ICG and the Thurrock Tories.
Speaking to The Enquirer, he said: “It is correct that this lorry park offers an alternative to parking on the streets but it cannot be right that the council can pick and choose, when and where to enforce action regarding significant breaches of planning law, particularly when the senior planning agency the DC have been requesting enforcement action on the site for several years.
“The relationship with the Tory group with ICG was the main reason why I felt I had to quit the Conservatives.”
The Watts Wood Lorry Park Story
Businessman, Ian Agates is a Director of Rainham Scaffolding. He has a number of business interests in the borough. His companies have put a number of planning applications in front of the council.
Two of his applications are the Mardyke Farm in Ship Lane, Aveley and a Lorry Park in Watts Wood, Purfleet.
To date it is estimated that this has cost Mr Agates in excess of £100,000. From the process of putting applications in to hiring a number of high profile planning experts such as Mike Sturges from Manchester-based King Sturges.
From documents seen by YourThurrock, it appears that Mr Agates and his team are concerned that they have had to go “by the book” on every aspect of every application that they have made. They don’t appear to have a councillor batting for them. They don’t appear to have a team of councillors to quote cllr John Cowell “looking to by-pass planning permission” for them.
It appears that they share concerns regarding the relationship between ICG and Thurrock Conservatives.
Having taken legal advice, Mr Agates is not available for interview at this time.
Parents Against Lorry Parks (PALS)
On Wednesday September 15th, PALS will present a 1500 strong petition that objects to the continuing presence of the Titan Lorry Park.
PALS introduce many other factors into the equation.
There concerns are for issues such as: pollution, road safety, an environment safe for children.
That particular area of West Thurrock has changed, is changing and will change.
New developments are growing and growing. There may well thousands of people , young couples, young families who have bought homes without being told that hundreds of lorries will be thundering past their houses.
PALs recently met to be briefed by West Thurrock councillor Oliver Gerrish.
Leader of the PALS Shamus McCarthy said: “Requests for enforcement action have been flagrantly and brazenly ignored for nearly four years.
“We would like a full explanation as to how the planning department is allowed to ignore written and verbal requests from the DC with impunity and why to date no such enforcement action has taken place?”.
The Collison Report
The Collison Report was specially commissioned by Interim Chief Executive Bob Coomber.
The report made a series of damning accusations and inferences towards the Thurrock councillors that sat on the Planning Committee.
The report referred to:
1. “An absence of adequate explanation of decisions inevitably raises questions about the motives of those councillors.”
2. “The fact that the Local Development Framework Working Group was adopting proposals without adequate stated justification left the process failing a test of transparency and open to all manner of speculation as to the basis of those proposals.”
3.”Where Committee decisions are made contrary to officer recommendations which are based on policy, and those decisions are made without adequate explanation, interested observers may conclude that some councillors are working to alternative unstated agendas.
4.”It is essential that councillors adopt practices that leave them above suspicion of receiving inappropriate influence.”
5.”Councillors appear to be receiving correspondence relevant to the determination of planning applications and LDF preparation but not declaring this.
Mike Revell Declares “Whitewash”
A few weeks later it took two veteran councillors to demand that the council name names lest all 49 be branded as “corrupt”.
Senior Tory, Councillor Mike Revell believed that all 49 councillors were being tarred with the same brush unless the individual councillors were named.
Portfolio Holder, Cllr Yash Gupta MBE told the committee that the report left him “devastated and ashamed”
As officers explained the complicated process, should someone make an individual complaint against individual councillors, Cllr Revell slammed the process as a “Whitewash” and “Red tape over a ticking bomb”.
He said that in June. Before the report there were 49 suspects; after the report there were ten. How many now?
There will be a conclusion. It may happen on September 15th or September 23rd. It may happen in 2016 but there will be a conclusion.
In many ways, the responsibility is with new Chief Executive Graham Farrant and Labour Leader of the Council, John Kent to skillfully crisis manage this situation.
The accusation will be that the whole scenario illustrates that Thurrock Council is not able to run it’s own affairs and should be subsumed back into Essex or become a London borough.
Others will disagree and may say that this was all done under the Tory regime’s watch and the opportunity and responsibility lies with the relevant Tories to clear their names.
What are the bottom lines here?
The taxpayer will want to know: will this cost me more money? Possibly, if there ends up being some form of legal action taken by disaffected parties?
Your next question may be about how much money does the council have left in reserve?
The voter will shrug and say as they did with the “Expenses Scandal”. Same old, same old and find something else to do rather than go to the ballot box.
How many businesses will turn round and say: “Thurrock, stay away from there, it just isn’t worth the grief.”
Finally, all this about a Lorry Park. There isn’t anything else we should all know about is there?