Complaint To The Local Government Ombudsman About The Handling By Waveney District Council (WDC) Of Issues Surrounding The Planning Process For The Building Of Joint Council Offices At Riverside Road, Lowestoft
This complaint is lodged by Lowestoft Coalition against the Cuts (LCAC).
There are four major complaints.
The first two deal with the breaking of specific planning laws. WDC has implied, although never stated explicitly, that a plan for a different building (Waveney Campus) on approximately the same site had been approved some years earlier and that therefore there were no planning issues. LCAC disputes this. This earlier scheme was for a totally different, much larger building, the bulk of which was to be occupied by the CEFAS laboratories which were already located out of town. Neither the size requirement nor the requirement for the supply and egress of sea water could have been met by a town centre site. The current proposal is purely for offices and involves moving 500 staff from offices in the town centre to an enterprise zone one mile out of town.
The comparison is therefore not relevant.
It is the contention of LCAC that the building of Joint Council Offices did have to conform to planning laws. In seeking planning approval Waveney District Council did not conform to the following laws:
WDC did not examine alternative town centre sites as it is required to do.
WDC did not conduct an impact assessment on the effect on the “vitality and viability” of the centre by moving 500 jobs out of town as it is required to do.
WDC has also confirmed that it holds no reports that would confirm than any investigation took place into alternative town centre sites or that an impact assessment was undertaken in the course of the earlier planning process for the failed “Waveney Campus”. (See appendix 1)
The third objection relates to deficiencies in the business case which was presented to councillors.
The forth objection relates to the handling of the debate on the LCAC petition against the Riverside Road project by Waveney District Council officers, the Chairman of the Council and the Monitoring Office.
The fifth objection relates to the unsatisfactory answer by the WDC Monitoring Officer to the complaint by LCAC about the handling of the LCAC petition.
Objection 1. The failure of Waveney District Council to adhere to planning rules in that it did not attempt to measure the impact of building offices outside the town centre with the consequent removal of approximately 500 jobs from the shopping areas.
Policy CS10 requires those wishing to build offices outside the town centre “todemonstratethere would be no significant adverse impact on the vitality and viability of any defined centre”. WDC has confirmed that no such impact assessment was carried out as part of the planning application nor at the time of the previous Waveney Campus application.. See FOI request, attached.
Objection 2. The failure of WDC to adhere to planning rules in that it did not demonstrate that there were no suitable alternative sites in the town centre.
Policy CS10 requires proposers “to demonstrate…there are no sequentially alternative sites available in, or at the edge, ofdefined centres”. LCAC did demonstrate that suitable sites existed including one council owned site, the old WDC Housing Offices, which would be ideal. This has since been sold but it had remained empty for about 5 years. WDC has confirmed that it did not consider this site, or several others including the Town Hall site, as an alternative to the out-of-town development. Nor has WDC any record of a previous examination of alternative sites. WDC therefore failed to demonstrate that there are no alternative town centre sites. See FOI request, attached.
Objection 3. Deficiencies in the business case which was presented to councillors who subsequently approved the plans eg:
a. The failure to explain the economic case for building out-of-town offices which would also require the retention and upgrading of town centre customer services offices when all could have been located in one town centre site.
b. The failure to assess the need for such offices at a time when council staff are being cut and are already far fewer than the 500 quoted in the business case.
c. The failure to address the future of the Grade 11 listed Town Hall.
d. The conflict of interest involved where joint authors of the business case, Norfolk Property Services, stood to profit from the sale of council properties which it recommended that the Council put up for sale as part of the plan.
e. The claim that the councils (Waveney District Council and Suffolk County Council) would save hundreds of thousands of pounds in business rates by building in an Enterprise Zone. This claim is incorrect and this was pointed out by LCAC on several occasions. It is regarded as “displacement” and such savings are specifically ruled out under Enterprise Zone rules. This claim has never been corrected by WDC.
Objection 4 The handling by WDC and WDC Officers of the LCAC official petition against the plan which was debated by Waveney District Council on January 30th 2013.
a. The accusation by WDC, prominently displayed on the Council’s website and closely linked to the LCAC petition, that LCAC had failed to engage in the democratic process. LCAC had done so by writing to all members of the Scrutiny Committee and to the Council officer who was servicing that committee. Although the council withdrew that accusation and issued an apology this action displayed its reluctance to genuinely engage with objections raised by LCAC. Those objections reflected widespread and strongly held public opposition to the Councils’ plans. That opposition continues.
b. The failure during the WDC debate on the petition by the Chairman, the Chief Planning Officer or the WDC Monitoring Officer to ensure that relevant questions raised by LCAC were properly addressed. In particular the petition accused WDC of breaking planning rules by failing to conduct an impact assessment on town centre businesses and the failure to look at alternative town centre sites. Neither of these questions were answered.
c. The waters were muddied by references to a plan for a joint council/CEFAS buildingwhich had been abandoned several years earlier. That scheme was approximately three times the size of the current offices and the major part would have been devoted to the CEFAS laboratories which also required the supply and egress of sea water. It bore no resemblance to the present proposal and it could not, unlike the present building, have been housed in the town centre. The fact that this “Waveney Campus” plan was approved was irrelevant but reference to it could have had a major impact on the voting by councillors. The Chief Planning Officer allowed the impression the plans were somehow equivalent to go unchallenged and, in fact, appeared to reinforce that impression.
d. The attempt by LCAC to correct the claim in the business case of large savings in business rates was not dealt with by any officers present including the Chief Planning Officer. This was an elementary but important mistake which significantly underestimated the costs of the project and could have had a major impact on voting by councillors. It should have been dealt with and corrected by the Chief Planning Officer. A claimed shortage of town centre parking was also not corrected. A WDC survey has confirmed that there is a 50% surplus of parking spaces in the town centre while the Riverside Road Offices require a new 208 space car park.
e. The Chief Planning Officer, while failing to deal with the concrete objections in the petition or to correct misleading statements, repeatedly insisted that the scheme should go through. This was a failure in the duty of the Officer to give impartial and professional advice to councillors. The Chairman of the Council also has a duty to ensure that a petition, legally presented under the rules of the Council, is dealt with in a reasonably thorough manner. The Chairman failed to give any guidance to ensure that that happened.
Objection 5 The LCAC Complaint to the WDC Monitoring Officer.
The rules on the debate on the LCAC petition meant that LCAC could not challenge any of the statements, in our view misleading or simply incorrect, made by council officers or councillors. The reply to our subsequent complaint to WDC’s Monitoring Officer, Arthur Charvonia, did not deal with any of our specific complaints, listed above, but replied with generalisations. We do not need to be told that “making planning decisions often requires the interpretation of competing planning policies”. What we wanted to know was why, in particular, two specific planning laws were broken and why misleading statements were allowed to go unchallenged. See attachment.
LCAC is not satisfied with the actions of Waveney District Council and its Officers throughout the planning process for the Councils’ Riverside Road Offices. This project is highly unpopular and its handling by WDC has reinforced the view that the Council was only interested in pushing the project through with no regard for the wishes or the well-founded and rational objections of the people of Waveney. LCAC is therefore referring the matter to the Ombudsman in the hope that, at last, the case we have been making will receive serious consideration.
Frank Joyce, Secretary
Lowestoft Coalition against the Cuts
37 St Georges Road
Lowestoft, Suffolk NR33 0JP