Asda Stonecot/Woodstock pub planning consultation letters: Sutton Council's response
In June I wrote about how Asda manipulated Sutton Council’s planning consultation to demolish the Woodstock pub on Stonecot Hill by sending in 161 of the 197 letters supporting their planning application. I followed that up by making a complaint to Sutton Council:
I would like to make a formal complaint about this:
It’s my view that Sutton Council’s planning officers were aware of Asda’s manipulation of the planning consultation, or should have been aware, and did not inform the planning committee of this pertinent fact. Consequently, the committee has been misled as to the true level of genuine local pubilc support for the proposal.
This is the council’s response, sent by Andy Webber, head of development management and strategic planning:
Dear Mr Short
I refer to your email and link to your 23 page letter concerning the above and your complaint that planning officers willingly and knowingly were duplicitous in not advising members of what you describe as “Asda’s manipulation of the planning consultation” which led to the Planning Committee being misled as to the “true level of genuine local support for the proposal”. This is a serious allegation and one which the Council does not take lightly.
You go on to make a number of suggestions at the end of your substantive representation on this matter to the effect that Sutton should consider a number of procedural changes to address the issues you raise.
I have been asked to investigate your complaint as Head of Service.
I note at the outset that you do not seek to challenge the validity of the planning decision itself; indeed the 6 week period within which the decision of the Council may be challenged in the Courts has passed.
Having read your paper which sets out at length your reasoning for making this complaint about officers, I do not find any evidence to support your view that officers were complicit in deliberately holding back information from the Planning Committee. You are reminded that the Planning Committee had a detailed report which covered the principal planning issues and there was a presentation from officers to the Planning Committee followed by question and answers. The minutes record that members of the public spoke both for and against the proposal. It was a balanced debate held in public.
Having presided at this Planning Committee as Head of Service I am completely satisfied that the Committee had sufficient information to make a decision on this application. If the Planning Committee had any concerns about the origin of letters of representations they could have asked that the application be deferred for the matter to be investigated but they did not. The Courts have established that the planning judgement rests entirely with the Local Planning Authority and it is evident that the Planning Committee was able to balance all the relevant planning issues and make a decision on this case.
Whilst representations received from interested parties are material considerations taken into account before making a decision, they are not the only factor that weighs in the planning judgement. When the council writes to residents about planning applications, people are advised what can or cannot be taken into account in when making representations. It is for this reason that all extraneous information that is received in relation to planning applications is not summarised in officer’s reports as the decision maker is only interested in material planning considerations. It is not a convincing argument, as you acknowledge at the start of your paper, that the decision maker is necessarily persuaded that a proposal is more or less acceptable according to the number representations received, whether they are for or against.
Whilst your points concerning the provenance of representations are understood, there are no rules that say that certain representations received may not be taken into account because they are written by a person who does not live near the particular site. In the case of the Asda application, officers were complete in their report by including the details of all postcodes from which representations were drawn. It is for the Planning Committee to decide the degree of weight they should give to representations from residents in the immediate vicinity as opposed to those writing from further away. The matter was discussed at the Planning Committee who were able to take a decision on a combination of all the relevant material considerations weighed against the policies in the Development Plan.
As such, having investigated the matters you refer to in your letter, I do not agree that officers were complicit in what you describe as “Asda’s manipulation of the planning consultation” and as such I do not uphold your complaint.
We are currently implementing service improvements within the Planning Service and we will consider very carefully all reasonable suggestions made to the Council, and you have made some interesting points in relation to the way in which letters of representation are dealt with in relation to planning applications. As the Council is bound by the strictures of the Planning Act and arrangements for dealing with planning applications which is by a National standard, I cannot, however, guarantee that we can accommodate all of your procedural proposals. The Planning Committee at Sutton will be receiving a programme of training from external and in house providers and we have invited the Planning Advisory Service to undertake an independent review of the Planning Committee both from the members and officers perspective. The Council is always striving to achieve excellence in all that it does and we are grateful to you for raising these issues with us, and I can assure you that we will be considering very carefully the matters you raise in due course.