Rugby BC Cabinet 14 Sep 2009

This meeting was incredibly short. It was not quite “blink and you’ll miss it”, but for me it was “get there five minutes later and miss all but a short exchange before having to leave”.

The Agenda was a little sparse, with the main areas I was interested in being an item on Air Quality (which does not make great reading from the report attached to the agenda) and the future of a parcel of land on the Cattle Market which is allocated to community use.

The latter item was the one I did get to see discussed. Essentially, a small piece of land that is not part of the major planning application at the cattle market site is set aside for a community building. The decision was basically to agree to give the land away to a voluntary organisation (I think I saw in earlier notes that Warwickshire CAVA were a likely candidate). No mention of how any actual building would be provided or paid for, but I believe that CAVA have plans)

Inflexibility, or outright arm-twisting?

From the Rugby Observer report of 1 July:

But Coun Maggie O’Rourke, who spoke at Monday’s meeting said while she was in favour of the development, she was unhappy at the lack of changes to address the concerns…

…”I just feel there was very little in the way of flexibility in the discussion and the issues people are concerned about are still there”

That’s a very diplomatic way of putting it. It seemed more to me that there was a definite effort to quell debate and dissent. Firstly through heckling speakers (mainly, it seemed, the women). Secondly through threats of dire consequences should the plans not be approved. Thirdly through suggesting that just because councillors had seen the original plans before (which had been changed for the new application), somehow objections were not really allowed to be heard. Seeing as many of the objections came not direct from councillors, but from the public, through their representatives, this seems a little haughty.

What I still don’t understand is how at least two Conservative councillors voted to refuse in committee, but voted in favour at Full Council. Was there any pressure brought to bear from their senior colleagues?

Cattle Market Application Approved

Not knowing the history behind it all, and not having a particular view beforehand (I can see that the site is ripe for development, but I didn’t know what was planned and it’s obvious that there are traffic and parking problems nearby), it was a revelation to see what was really going on with this application.

The Tories were angry that the Planning Committee had referred this to the Full Council at all, accusing them of being mischievous and politically motivated. It went over their heads when it was pointed out that at least two Conservative councillors on the committee must have supported referral. The Tories – in particular the cabinet members – pressed their view that it was a partisan action to the point that Cllr David Wright had to be made to withdraw his remark towards Labour member Maggie O’Rourke “Is she worried about her seat?”, which was a particularly low blow.

The other points made by the majority group were that there was the risk that the developer might walk away, and so the site remain undeveloped. There are two flaws with this line – firstly that the developer would most likely appeal, and that if not or alongside would nogotiate change; secondly that it’s highly unlikely that the development would start in a hurry anyway, given the current economic circumstances.

A few Labour councillors spoke against the application – Cllr O’Rourke outlined a series of reasons, presumably summing up the views of a range of her group’s members (and was rudely interrupted by Tory braying), and Cllr Whinstance said he would grudgingly vote in favour because the original outline permission had been granted, even though he opposed it.

The Lib Dems who spoke appeared to be critical, but most ended up voting in favour. In the end, they said that it was not about mischief, but about making a major decision carefully and allowing people (councillors and members of the public) a say. When councillor Noreen New of the Lib Dems was speaking, she was twice interrupted by Tories  again braying and laughing.

The main objections / criticisms were: parking problems nearby, traffic congestion (particularly along Murray Road/Mill Road), too big a retail space (a new Tesco, not far from two existing convenience stores on Murray Road), not enought green space, no GP surgery as ‘promised’ a few years ago, and too modern a look considering that most properties on Murray Road and Craven Road are Victorian or Edwardian.

In the end, the vote was 35 in favour (27 Tories, which I think is all of them, so whoever voted to defer at Planning switched their vote, but according to the Tories there was ‘no whip’; 6 Lib Dems; 2 Labour). As there was not much point, the remaining councillors – mainly Labour, declined to vote against.

Now that I’ve seen more detail of the plans, I have to say I’m generally in favour of the development (and not too worried about a hotel and Tesco), but I can definitely see why there are worries at a local level.

It seemed to me that the Tories were prepared to railroad this through, a development that the Council had itself an interest in along with a single developer, and they used a few scare tactics to do so, including playing the traveller card “if the site is left empty and people occupy it, we’ll know who to blame”, the partisan card (which backfired as far as I can see, as it was only the Tories who appeared to have a solid position and they kept mentioning the politics rather than the planning aspects), and the spurious idea that it should not have come to Full Council at all (yes, it’s unusual, but actually, it does happen from time to time and it is perfectly valid for large scale and contentious developments).

The new plans are not quite the same as those in the outline permission that was granted in November 2008 (the one that was shown to the public at that time). I can’t say wether the differences were material enough to justify a refusal, but they certainly needed to be debated.

Whether or not the debate was up to the standard required, I don’t know. Certainly I spotted a couple of dodgy statements from those determined to see the application succeed. I think I’ll need to keep an eye on these Tories. They seem just a little bit smug and prone to patronising their opponents (and the public too).

Off to the Town Hall again

Tonight the Council have a full meeting, and probably the focus of the night will be the planning application to redevelop the Cattle Market site near the railway station. This is unusual for several reasons.

Firstly, most applications are dealt with directly by the planning officers, being quite straightforward. The rest go to the regular committee meetings, where a group of councillors have to vote. This is usually reserved for the ones which are going to be rejected, or where there are a large number of objections, or there is a policy effect. The committee will in most cases be able to come to a decision on the night. Sometimes they will defer it for a site visit or more information. In this case, they have decided to refer it up to the Full Council instead, meaning that all Borough Councillors vote, rather than a subset.

Secondly, the councillors on the committee have decided to recommend refusal, but the officers have said that it can be approved. This makes the decision pretty tight – if the Council refuse, there is a very good chance of an appeal, which the officers would be duty-bound to fight (even though they originally agreed with the application), and if the Council lose will cost them (sorry – us taxpayers) thousands of pounds while the application gets approved – possibly without all the conditions that a local council would have wanted to apply.

Lastly, it’ll be one of those rare council meetings where suddenly dozens (perhaps even scores) of people will be going to watch – most of whom will probably not been to see one before. This can be a charged, and confusing, atmosphere.

As a neutral (as far as the application is concerned), it will be fascinating to watch…