Discussion Forum
What Hebden Bridge’s Garden Street battle should tell us about the planning process

From Nick Wilding
Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The rotten core at the heart of the planning process was on display for all to witness on Monday. Alright, the objectors did win this battle. However, the developer will simply appeal, convinced in his own mind, like many before him, that he will win in the end. Just a slight delay, he will think, just a few thousand more pounds to spend!

And why should he feel this? Look at the way the Council operates.
Officers choose behind closed doors to take a line in supporting an application by a developer. We are not privy to how this happens, because it is not done in public. Then hundreds of people come to to a public meeting and demonstrate the sheer weight of public opinion through the numbers of people who come to oppose it.

As they say, what do numbers matter, 200, 300, 400, so what? Apparently, they are not currently obliged to hold their meetings in front of any public at all! A controversial scheme affecting the entire town centre could be agreed in this way. This is surely wrong!

But then we watch amazed! Who is the interrogator and who is the interrogated here?

We discover that the Council Officer, who has taken the unpopular stance, is interrogating the local councillor, representing the views of the majority of about 300 people in the room. Surely, you think, it should be our elected local Councillor that should be interrogating the Council Officers over their decision to support this controversial scheme. However, as things stand, we the public are not even allowed to question their private decision-making process.

Exactly, what is democratic about this? It appears that the local Councillor who represents and supports the people who oppose the scheme should be in the firing line, when really, it is the Council Officers who should be interrogated for supporting a developer about why they have taken this line.

Until this undemocratic procedure is altered, we will find ourselves continuously dealing with Council officers, unwilling to even face the general public, making decisions behind closed doors and not subject to any kind of public interrogation about their reasons. No wonder Calderdale Council are lowest in the National League Table for communicating effectively with the people they deem to represent!

Why have they supported such a developer? It seems we will never know, because they are not called upon to give their reasons. That is why I am calling this the rotten core of the planning process. The system is potentially corrupt, because the officers are never under fire.

In the interests of democracy, this must be changed. If Council Officers choose to support and even act like the people representing the scheme, they should be interrogated by our local representatives for taking an unpopular course of action, not the other way round.

Until this happens, hundreds of us will be forced to watch like we were on Monday night, our elected representatives placed in the firing line by unelected Council officers who had made their decisions away from the public gaze and were not expected to explain their reasons for supporting a highly controversial scheme.
This is fundamentally and morally wrong and we should go to parliament, if necessary, to change it!

Nick Wilding


From Oscar H
Tuesday, 30 September 2008

We hold elections to nominate our favoured candidate to take our decisions for us. That is democracy. We therefore devolve ourselves from the responsibility of taking these decisions and their consequences. Unless of course, we become directly effected and react.

I find the actions of the ‘Garden Street Action Group’ dictatorial and oppressive. They are a non elected group who say they speak for the majority.

I look forward to the development of Garden Street, to improve Hebden Bridge. Although, I feel the current proposals are unacceptable.

From Andrew Hall
Tuesday, 30 September 2008


I share your concerns. There seem to be far too many done deals, arranged well away from the public gaze, for the planning process to be anything but a farce.

The government's own website states: "The government is keen that citizens should take an active part in decisions affecting them and their communities". Throughout the web pages, the importance of the local communities' opinions is emphasised and re-emphasised. It is therefore chilling to see how such opinions were ignored by our council planning officers. But, of course, we know how closely those officers have been working with the developers, so I suppose it was not surprising at Monday's meeting to see them fighting a desperate rearguard action to try to ensure approval of the plans.

All credit to Councillor Coles for making reference to the volume of objections and, most importantly, to the fact that our local Town Council had unanimously recommended refusal of the plans. All credit to Anthony Rae for articulately voicing so many of our concerns. Isn't that what the government want to hear? ("The government is keen that citizens should take an active part in decisions affecting them and their communities.") or are they as two faced as our planning officers? The government's words, to me, mean that our opinion should count. And surely the more people who voice that opinion, the more weight it should carry. Isn't that what democracy is about? Apparently not!

The developers of the Garden Street site have a choice now. They can withdraw their plans in full acceptance of the breadth of feeling against them, they can submit revised plans, or they can go to appeal. If they choose the latter two options, I am certain they will not get a smooth ride. In the meantime a bit of bedtime reading for you! The Planning Aid site has some excellent information about community involvement in local planning matters, and of course the Planning Inspectorate site has lots of information about how you can make your voice heard should the developers appeal.

Let's hope they see sense and leave us alone. But even if they do, somewhere in our valley there is bound to be a 'next time'. Perhaps, in the light of new government guidelines, our opinions just actually might bear some weight! Don't hold your breath, though!

From Andy Preston
Wednesday, 1 October 2008

If the planning process was as arbitrary as you make out Nick, I would be inclined to agree. However, several decades of continually evolving planning regulations set out the rules which govern what is and is not an acceptable development, this is no conspiracy.

Planning officers do not indulge in the kind of clandestine private meetings you seem to suggest in order to decide which applications are recommended and which are not. They carefully examine the details of the application with their years of experience and training, they refer to the fine details of regulations governing developments, and they must carefully review the separate reports on the application made by dozens of other public bodies.

The Garden Street scheme complied with the planning regulations in every way (a credit to the architects given the location and context). So Nick, if you feel the regulations are corrupt, please direct your criticism at those responsible for creating them, rather than those working to assure they are adhered to. Or more simply, don't shoot the messenger.


From Anne Handley
Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Forgive me if I have misread what happened at the meeting – I didn’t go, but I’ve read various reports about it.

It appears to me as if the planning process worked exactly as it is supposed to. The planning officer made his decision based on pre-set criteria – the plans put forward by the developer plus reports from other bodies representing highways, environment, utilities etc. and the number of ‘acceptable’ objections and messages of support for it (but not the number of people making each point). I think that is probably all in his job description.

The council (our elected representatives) made their decision based on the planning officer’s recommendations plus the opinions of the people they represent, including the people at the meeting, the report from the Action Group, the individual objections, and the decision by the town council. Credit goes to those councillors who voted to throw it out, even though they don’t have voters in this area, but could see the importance of listening to the community.
To me, it looks as if democracy won through.

From Rev Tony Buglass
Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Oscar, I am not a member of the Action Group, although I attended the protest in St George's Square (as one of the choir) and the public meeting in Riverside School. I have followed the discussion on this website, read the letters in HBT, and listened to both sides of the argument.

On those grounds, I have to disagree with you in your criticisms of the group. I would describe them as committed and focussed, rather than dictatorial. They have been entirely open at all points, which is rather more than can be said for Calderdale's officers. They are non-elected, true, but neither are council officers. And the available data suggests that the Action Group does in fact represent the majority view.

To be fair to them, I don't think they have ever argued in principle against the development of Garden Street. They have argued against this scheme. That is why they have my support. I'd like to see the place developed in a way which enhances the community, rather than damages it.

From Anthony Rae
Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A couple of comments just on some specifics at the moment; I'll come back to Nick's more general argument.

- Firstly, Andy Preston's typically sweeping and unsubstantiated remark "The Garden Street scheme complied with the planning regulations in every way" is incorrect. Just as one example, there was in fact repeated non-compliance with the Conservation Area and Built Environment policies, not that the Planning Officers' report demonstrated compliance – rather than asserting it - either. We provided the evidence of this non-compliance in our presentation to the committee. In general there was very substantial non compliance across a range of policy areas.

- Secondly, let's make a distinction here between two groups of Calderdale officers: those responsible for promoting the development on behalf of the Council on the one hand; and those assessing the planning application for the Local Planning Authority on the other.

Our principal criticism is of the first group, and it is about them that the statement on our website applies: "But a deeper lying problem remains in the persistent and partisan support of a few Calderdale council officers for a property development that just happened to be on the Council's own site, which it had promoted, and from which it would have been a financial beneficiary. This is what must now be tackled in case that real threat comes back to haunt the town again."

The second group of officers arrived on the scene later and, as we have seen just from the reactions to the Planning Committee meeting, there have been problems with their work as well. The Action Group identified no fewer than 58 'discrepancies' in the report that they submitted to committee; they found it necessary to issue an addendum report in response; and then we replied to that. All this can now be read on our website, and it is unprecedented in my experience to have a Planning Officers' report contested to such an extent.

This is referring to a wider problem, which has been repeatedly pointed out to Calderdale Council by the Action Group but which they have not taken any action to resolve. As the second group of officers had to develop their independent assessment of the planning application they would have to go to the first group of officers, or a wider group of officers, to get information and analysis. At this point there is a potential for a number of things to get muddled or go wrong: both 'acts of commission and omission'. Bear in mind that almost all of the principal officers in both groups are within the same Directorate – which ought actually to have facilitated proper coordination and direction of the process.

So this is ultimately about the transparent management of 'conflict of interest' which becomes even more important when the Council has a commercial involvement in the project, and therefore the planning application; and also about the effective management of the entire process as a whole within the Council, in order to maintain community confidence in that process and the ultimate outcome.

In terms of Calderdale's recent performance in the latter aspect, what the Council's external auditors apparently found in their evaluation of a related and similar project in Brighouse was a 'lack of formal strategic management of the scheme'. To my eyes, this looks exactly like what has happened on Garden Street, but we can't tell precisely because the Council won't release the Auditor's report.

Finally, and for your information, we submitted a draft Ombusdman complaint to the Council in August identifying failures of process and serious and specific conflicts of interest. That cannot now be taken forward because, with the rejection of the application 'maladministration' has not occurred; but the complaint remains on the table so far as the Council itself is concerned, and has also been provided to the external auditors for their consideration.

See also: Garden Street (3) thread