Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Long Day!

The day started well enough with a meeting about the programme for the Western Area Partnership for the next couple of months. Zoe brought down the graffiti canvas which has been produced showing the Board's responses to the issues raised by the young people earlier in the year. It looks good and we're going to arrange to have them both on display in libraries so that people can see and read them.
Then it was on to the Council's Forward plan - a necessary but not very exciting meeting to go through the programme for the coming year and discuss any slippage in target dates, any extra consultation which needs to be done and so on.
Time for a quick dash to Norton to deliver an important package then back to Stockton ready for the planning committee. This afternoon was a marathon - starting just after 1 reading update reports and trying to get clarification of some of the issues in advance. There was a long report and longer debate on the new Energy from Waste plant at Haverton Hill. Eventually it was approved, and I was pleased to hear that SITA are hoping to have contracts to supply not just power to the grid but heat to neighbouring companies.
The very long saga of an unauthorised development in another part of the borough finally came to a conclusion today, or at least I hope it did. I hope the developer now complies with all the conditions and completes the job properly.
The Urlay Nook Rd industrial & warehousing development took a very long time to decide. There was a good debate, with lots of good points made by a resident who spoke and by members of the committee but in the end there just didn't seem to be a sustainable planning reason for refusing it. I'm cross that the council decided last year that the land wasn't needed for industrial use but the consultation process needed to get that change of classification accepted is so long that in the mean time the owner could put in plans, have them refused, modify them and come back and get them accepted. There's no sense in us spending time debating the merits of the classification then being told that the change can't take effect yet because we haven't consulted enough.
The Rookery demolition was deferred until the applicant can show to the committee firm evidence that the economics of underpinning aren't viable. That followed a long debate on a particular part of Stockton's policy which says that demolition in a conservation area can be allowed if the building can't be repaired economically (my paraphrase). I don't hold out a lot of hope for its preservation but at least I'll be sure we've done all we can within the present law.
There were over 10 more applications to consider, thankfully not all as lengthy to debate as these, but all important to the people involved and all deserving of careful consideration. By the end of the meeting, over 4 hours after I'd arrived at the library, everyone was pretty tired but it wasn't the end of the day for members - full Council met at 7.
Often the council meeting is very quick and non-contentious because issues have been ironed out at various committees and other meetings, Cabinet has taken a decision and everyone is more or less in agreement with it. On this occasion there were two items which needed a vote.
The first was a good example of a member (John Fletcher, a fellow Eaglescliffe councillor and this year's mayor) working with another member who is also mayor of Thornaby Town council, to find a way through a maze of red tape and bad feeling so that the chains which were worn by the mayor of Thornaby in the days before unitary authorities were invented could be safely returned to Thornaby. This issue has been a sore point between Stockton and Thornaby councils since the latter was formed as a Town Council some years ago. Thanks to John's analytic and logical thinking and persistence on the part of both members the final hurdle waa crossed last night with a vote in favour. I look forward to the handover on the Victoria bridge!
The other issue was more technical but in some ways more important. At times the planning committee refuses an application even though planning officers have recommended that it be approved. Sometimes that's on a balance of fairly subjective views on design or amenity. At other times it's because the committee knows that it's the last thing residents want but under present planning laws it can't be refused. Nevertheless in the heat of the moment we can't bring ourselves to approve it. If the applicant goes to appeal the inspector grants the latter kind as a matter of course, and we win some of the "on balance" type. In an effort to stop the "democratic wishes" kind of refusal the planning officers had proposed a protocol which would mean such decisions weren't taken immediately but sent to review by the Head of Planning and the Corporate Director of Neighbourhood Servicies with a solicitor who would then come back to the planning committee 3 weeks later and advise again on whether or not to refuse it. Many of us thought this process gave the impression of officers putting undue pressure on members. If it happens in the open, in a meeting, everyone sees and hears. When part of the deliberation is behind closed doors it leaves a bad feeling on the part of the people who end up on the losing side and the reputation of the council suffers with its residents.
A lengthy discussion by email and face to face meant that members of every party but Labour supported an amendment to get a rethink on that, despite the Tory leader siding with Labour. A follow up amendment which I proposed to tidy up a really badly written recommendation even got some Labour support - the first time I've known that on something which was not agreed in advance with their leader. A triumph for Democracy on Democracy day.

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