MARCH: Anger at 'private' planning U-turn

EXCLUSIVE By JOHN ELWORTHY A PLANNING committee held a secret meeting to withdraw its opposition to 13 homes to replace the lawn, swimming pool and orchard of former town mayor and estate agent Freddie Grounds. The committee s revised decision has provok



A PLANNING committee held a secret meeting to withdraw its opposition to 13 homes to replace the lawn, swimming pool and orchard of former town mayor and estate agent Freddie Grounds.

The committee's revised decision has provoked a furious response from residents who say they had expected Fenland District Council Planning Committee to oppose the application at an appeal hearing.

"We're spitting blood," said protestor Steve Count. "The council has told me that no barrister would touch the case with a barge pole- but I've never known a barrister to give such clear advice."

Councillors who voted at a planning committee to support residents' objections, found themselves summoned to a follow up meeting to hear from Fenland's chief planning officer Nigel Brown that there was not the evidence to support the refusal at a public inquiry.

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That view was confirmed in a statement issued by Fenland District Council on Tuesday evening which said that "our planning and legal officers followed a normal process in relation to Oxbow Crescent.

"They had informal discussions with planning committee members before the decision was made not to defend the planning appeal, taking into account evidential and planning considerations.

"The council is now in the process of meeting with Oxbow Crescent residents to advise them on their options to attend the appeal."

Cllr Martin Curtis, chairman of the planning committee, said: "It's a difficult one. We got very strong advice from officers that they could not support the refusal and could offer no evidence at an appeal."

On Tuesday Mr Count met with Cllr Curtis and Mr Brown and called for the council to stick to the two grounds for refusal, that of access and underdevelopment.

"The meeting failed to resolve many of the serious concerns of residents regarding an impromptu and unrecorded meeting," Mr Count said later. "In view of ongoing invesigations we have no further comments to make at this time."

However Cllr Curtis said that councillors took legal and professional advice before concluding that they would support Mr Brown's view that opposition to the homes in the garden of 33 Gaul Road, March, would be a waste of time and money.

"On reflection we looked at it again and thought we can't defend it," said Cllr Curtis. "It would have added to the costs of the appeal, would have cost council tax payers money, and the outcome would have been no different. "

Cllr Curtis said that, technically, the committee had not over turned the original decision - where councillors had gone against officers' advice and ruled that poor access should seen the application turned down.

"On the record that decision stands," he argued. "We have simply chosen not to defend that position appeal."

The committee' change of thoughts was discovered by opponents to the scheme on the eve of a public hearing into the proposed mix of three and four bedroom homes.

Cllr Curtis said councillors had taken legal guidance which suggested the refusal would have been over ridden on appeal.

"One of the things I would like you to understand is that planning committees have to make difficult decisions. I am very proud of our independence and we are not a committee that always goes along with officers recommendations. However in this instance the strength of residents' feelings took us away from reason.

"We have not had a formal change of decision in this instance, it is simply a reflection of the view as to whether we could sustain or justify that decision when the outcome would be no different."

He said the council also faced other difficulties since "we cannot find barristers to represent us when there is a strong legal view that we have no planning grounds upon which to sustain an appeal.

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