Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Accused of "grandstanding" but shaping the debate

When an application for opencast mining was submitted to Gateshead Council in 2011 at Birklands, in Lamesley ward, neighbouring mine, I was the councillor who put together the campaign to defeat the proposals. I wrote the petition and with Lib Dem colleagues, we delivered it to a large part of Lamesley ward and to my ward. I also arranged for the petition to go on-line. Labour were noticeable for their lack of interest in the issue. When I met residents, at least one Labour councillor was invited to the meetings. None appeared.

The application took nearly three years to go through the planning process, a delay which lay with the applicant's slow approach to providing all the information needed for the planning system to take a decision. Months ago I put my name down to speak at the planning committee as an opponent of the application. At the end of March, the planning officers informed everyone that they were recommending rejection of the application.

I was one of the first to arrive for the planning committee meeting. I had been phoned in advance by officers to be told that I could not speak as the ward member as the site of the application was not in my ward, even though the biggest impact was on my constituents. I was speaking therefore simply as an objector. Lamesley Labour Councillor Christine Bradley was to speak against the application as ward member. She told me before proceedings started that her comments were going to be focused on the applicant offering inadequate financial compensation to the community.

The officer presented their report about the application, outlining the reasons why it should be rejected. He explained that the transport route was acceptable and therefore was not being included in the list of reasons for recommending rejection.

As ward member, Cllr Bradley was first objector to speak. I was next. My comments focused on the inadequate transport route and the impact on local roads of the 70 heavy lorries a day that would go through villages in my ward. I said clearly that I disagreed with officers about the transport implications.

Planning committee members discussed a number of issues but most time was spent on the transport issue. It seemed that members, having heard my comments, shared my concerns. The rejection of the application for the reasons presented by the officers was approved but for one important exception. Labour Councillor Paul Foy moved that the transport problems be added to the list of reasons for rejection. This was agreed by the committee.

Later that day, my ward colleague Cllr John McClurey, informed me of an interesting conversation he heard before the planning committee meeting was held. A Labour councillor had loudly suggested to colleagues that I was "grandstanding" by planning to speak to the committee as the officers had already recommended rejection. John then intervened and pointed out that my name had been down to speak against the application long before the officers had made their recommendation. It was interesting to note however that this same Labour Councillor did not make the same criticism of Cllr Bradley. Was this one rule for Labour, one for the rest of us?

Given that my comments were confined entirely to the transport issue which the officers had indicated were not a reason to reject, it would seem that there was good reason for me to speak at the meeting, even with the recommendation to reject being on the table. And the committee agreed with me - a point demonstrated by their decision to add transport concerns to the list of reasons to reject.

So, who had accused me of "grandstanding"? - none other than Cllr Foy himself, the person who moved that transport concerns be added to the reasons to reject! Nice one Paul!

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