Fenland’s planning committee stood down as council faces possible legal action

THE whole of Fenland Council’s planning committee is to be replaced following the furore over its U-turn on controversial supermarket plans for Whittlesey and new members will have to undergo training.

Council Leader Alan Melton said he was taking measures in the light of legal advice that decisions made by the planning committee on applications by Sainsbury’s and Tesco to build stores in Whittlesey and for a business park along Eastrea Road were not sound and would not stand up if challenged in the high court.

And in a press release on Thursday Mr Melton said the first step was to set aside the committee’s previous decisions and for all applications to be looked at afresh in January.

He said: “The recent decision to grant planning permission to two stores in Whittlesey has caused a public and media outcry. There is a perception that officers advice has been completely ignored and the council has granted three unsustainable decisions.

“Following intense discussions between myself, the deputy leader and John Clark (Portfolio Holder for Finance), we agreed that the Chief Executive seek advice from a specialist barrister (Head of Chambers), to advise the council of our legal position and possible financial liability.

“The advice was that the decisions reached were unsound and would not stand up to challenge in the high court, increasing the risk of huge financial penalties being levied against Fenland District Council.

“The issue of member involvement and behaviour was also raised, before, during and after the relevant planning committee meetings. The barrister informed us that member behaviour raised a number of issues, and that the reasons for the planning committee decisions were not substantial planning reasons with which to overturn officer advice.

Subsequently, we were advised to take measures to mitigate the decisions.”

Mr Melton said it was also necessary to take steps to show member behaviour has improved.

“There are also a number of complaints against members, some formal, which will have to be investigated.”

Consequently March councillor Jan French has stepped down from her cabinet post and the planning committee while complaints against her are investigated.

Whittlesey Councillor Martin Curtis has been asked to resign from planning committee and all cabinet members will be removed from the planning committee with immediate effect.

All members of the planning committee will be interviewed and will have to undertake training as prescribed by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Planning Advisory Service.

The Chairman of the planning committee will undergo specialist training as prescribed by the LGA.

All newly nominated planning committee members will be subject to training.

Mr Melton said: “It is hoped that by taking these steps, our case against possible judicial review will be strengthened and our risk to costs will be reduced or mitigated. I wish to make it clear - This document does not in any way give any direction towards any further recommendations or decisions. But it will ensure that whatever the result of the subsequent planning committee deliberations and decisions, they will be sustainable and beyond reproach.”