Investigation reveals the chaos left in wake of Queens Hotel scheme refusal

PUBLISHED: 11:43 20 August 2009 | UPDATED: 09:13 02 June 2010

Luminus Group plans for Octavia View

Luminus Group plans for Octavia View

Exclusive By John Elworthy ANXIOUS council and housing association chiefs will leave nothing to chance as they revive a £2million bid to use a former Wisbech hotel as a hostel for the homeless. MP Malcolm Moss has also stepped into the row describing the

Some of the key workers involved in Wisbech projects for the Luminus Group.

Exclusive

By John Elworthy

ANXIOUS council and housing association chiefs will leave nothing to chance as they revive a £2million bid to use a former Wisbech hotel as a hostel for the homeless.

MP Malcolm Moss has also stepped into the row describing the conversion of the old Queens Hotel as a sensitive issue that has divided opinion but wondering "if we need to ask ourselves whether refusing it really is the right thing to do".

Keith Smith at Octavia House - Enterprising Britain award

Councillors have been invited to a presentation next month to look at the proposals in advance of a fresh application by the Luminus Group to Fenland District Council Planning Committee. Up to £900,000 towards the scheme has been pledged by the Government and Fenland District Council.

Chan Abraham, Luminus' chief executive, said he saw "this innovative project as helping to regenerate Wisbech, providing house, education and a range of facilities benefiting the community.

"This unique opportunity will help homeless people bridge the gap back into employment and give them hope for the future."

A Wisbech Standard investigation has uncovered the confusion and chaos that was left in the wake of last month's rejection of the scheme.

Malcolm Moss

The most astonishing of our revelations is that the project almost certainly would not have been rejected had an airline not brought forward a flight to a German rock festival by 24 hours!

For the meeting which rejected the plans should have been chaired by Councillor Martin Curtis but at the last minute he was forced to hand over to his deputy, Councillor Roger Green.

"I would have been at the planning committee if my flights hadn't been changed," he said. "I originally wanted to travel out on the Wednesday evening after the meeting. I hope nobody begrudges me a holiday - in fact it is the first planning committee I have missed this year."

As Cllr Curtis flew out to join 70,000 other revellers at the Wacken music festival, it was left to Cllr Green to chair the meeting, but as we discovered council protocols should have insisted he also withdraw.

Luminus Group plans for Octavia View

For on two occasions this year Cllr Green had publicly stated his support for the hostel, describing it variously in press reports as "good for the town" and "any improvements to either side of the river must be good".

And on a feedback card, left behind after he visited an exhibition at Wisbech Boathouse to see the scheme, he said it was "great to see the buildings brought back into use".

By disclosing his views in advance of a planning committee on which not only does he serve but, on this occasion chaired, he was clearly in breach of council guidelines on partisanship.

Although he later told me he was not asked to vote - or speak - our investigations also revealed he made an error of judgement which could have allowed the matter to be deferred for fresh consideration.

For after the fateful proposition to reject the plans had been put by Councillor Phil Webb - who later described prospective residents as "undesirables" - there was a second motion to postpone the decision put by Councillor Florence Newell.

Had Cllr Green taken that motion then the matter would have been held over to next week's meeting and the probability of a more skilled chairman being able to tackle the issues raised.

Our investigations also revealed that officials misjudged the mood of Wisbech Town Council whose planning committee were asked for their comments just 48 hours before the district council was due to consider it.

Public files at Fenland Hall show advisers to Luminus led planners to believe the feedback on the scheme showed "overwhelming support".

One adviser told the council: "The overall view is that this is a unique, positive scheme and an asset to the community and pleasing to see the building brought back into use."

However comments from Shanna Penney, a planning officer at Fenland Hall, are contained in the files and these show some of her reservations, especially in respect of the proposed library and café at the hostel.

Notes from one meeting show that Ms Penney "said she would need to be convinced that the proposed uses of the building were appropriate." She also asked for clarification of a proposed "social enterprise shop" within the centre.

Luminus, though, were buoyed by the positive comments from at least six town councillors whose comments ranged from "very encouraged" to "great, vast improvement".

But in their rush to win approval, Luminus fell at the quite unexpected final hurdle. The scheme was officially lodged in the first week of June and for a decision to be reached by the end of the following month was unprecedented.

Not even in their wildest imaginings, however, did they foresee the town council planning committee raising 11th hour issues of noise, disturbance, law and order, fears over drug and needle abuse, and adding to the building an extension "unsympathetic and not in keeping with the character and appearance of the building.


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