Council harbour decision making "grossly defective"

2010-02-22

An analysis of Cornwall Council decision making surrounding the Isles of Scilly Link project has described a key Cabinet decision as "flawed", a report to planners as a "travesty", and the language used by planning officers as "scandalous".

On March 8th Cornwall Council’s Strategic Planning Committee is being asked to consider for a second time a planning application that will allow two large gaps to be created in Penzance’s historic South Pier to allow for the creation of a freight depot on Battery Rocks beach.

The Committee has already thrown out the application once, but the Council’s Cabinet has told it to look at the application again.

Dr Peter Levin, a former LSE academic who lives in Penzance, and who runs the website ‘Social Policy Research for Cornwall’, has been making a study of Cornwall Council’s decision-making process on the controversial scheme. His observations have led him to describe some of the Council’s procedures as ‘grossly defective’.

‘I am happy to declare my interest as a supporter of the Friends of Penzance Harbour’, he said, ‘but the facts speak for themselves.’

Cabinet decision ‘flawed’

He is particularly critical of the way the Cabinet took its decision, at a meeting on January 25th, to send the application back to the Committee. He points out:

• Nothing of any significance at all has changed about the application, as the Council admits. As English Heritage say, their objection ‘still stands’. The only difference this time round is that the Head of Planning has recognised that it’s English Heritage’s job to comment on heritage aspects, not to do the Council’s job of balancing pros and cons. He should have known this all along: the information is on the English Heritage website!

• A report on an alternative proposal, Option C, was not disclosed to the Cabinet. They had to take the word of Council officers that the preferred Option A was better.

• Option C was said to cost £3.5 million more because there would be a delay in gaining the necessary approvals, and in that time the cost of the new ship the Council wants to buy would go up, because the Euro had been going up against the Pound. But by the time of the Cabinet meeting the Euro had gone down again to almost exactly where it had been the previous June, which would wipe out that £3.5m deficit. The Cabinet wasn’t told that.

• Cost figures for carrying freight supplied by the Council’s own consultants show that whether Option A is cheaper than Option C or not depends entirely on whether forklift trucks or more expensive equipment is used to handle freight at the harbour. Cabinet members weren’t told what if anything had been done to check whether the more expensive equipment will indeed have to be used (e.g. on grounds of noise reduction and health and safety). If it will, Option C would be cheaper. The Cabinet wasn’t told that either.

• The costing of the harbour works for Option A, as notified to the Cabinet, didn’t include an allowance for ‘optimism bias’. The Department for Transport has noticed that when projects are completed they often turn out to have cost much more than was estimated when they had been given the go-ahead, so it has issued guidance requiring an ‘uplift’ to estimates to take account of this. Council officers haven’t understood this, let alone complied with it, so ultimate costs could be much more than the Cabinet was told. Dr Levin calculates that the Council could be left having to borrow nearly £32 million, more than twice as much as the amount currently budgeted. The burden of this would fall on council taxpayers.

• Last October, the European Commission agreed that the Scottish government’s subsidy of Scottish ferry routes was legitimate. Council officers could have enquired into the possibility that central government could subsidize the running costs of the Isles of Scilly Link … but they haven’t bothered to. Even though transport supremo Councillor Graeme Hicks has said their prime concern was not to reduce capital costs, because these would largely be covered by grant funding, but to decrease running costs, which wouldn’t. Which means, in plain language, that Penzance would be subsidising the running costs of the IoS Link by putting up with an industrial estate situated on Battery Rocks beach. Again, that’s something the Cabinet wasn’t told about.

• There’s a risk attached to the project. The report to the Cabinet showed the IoS Link project has a risk rating of Extreme. Astonishingly, although lower down on the same page there is a reference to ‘legal risks’, there is no mention of how that risk rating was arrived at, or of what it signifies. Moreover, not a single Cabinet member asked a question about it!

Council report “an absolute travesty”

Dr Levin has also examined the Planning Officer’s Report that went to the Strategic Planning Committee last December. Some of it, he says, is an absolute travesty.

‘We have here a situation where Cornwall Council, which is promoting this scheme, is also applying to itself for permission to go ahead. So it’s crucially important that the Planning Officer is scrupulously fair when he advises the Committee. This report shows he was nothing of the sort. He was acting as the mouthpiece of the small bunch of people driving the scheme.

‘He told the Committee they had to be guided by a Government policy document known as “PPG 15”. He said its Paragraph 1.2 “clarifies that the objective of the planning process should be to promote sustainable economic growth, and make provision for development …”

‘If you look up that paragraph you’ll find that what it actually says is completely different:

“The objective of planning processes should be to reconcile the need for economic growth with the need to protect the natural and historic environment.”

What the Planning Officer told the Committee is a gross distortion of this. His behaviour strikes me as utterly unethical, utterly unprofessional.’

Planning Officer’s language “a scandal”

Dr Levin says: ‘I am also very concerned by the language used by the Planning Officer in his Report last December. It conceals more than it tells you, and it’s full of judgmental words which are plainly designed to convey authority and discourage councillors from challenging them.

‘Here’s an example, an extract from paragraph 111:

[It] has been demonstrated that an appropriate level of assessment has been carried out in order to ensure that the proposed works are the only viable option in order to maintain and secure the long term future of the link to the Isles of Scilly, which has resulted in the current scheme.

‘Cutting through the gobbledegook, councillors were told that the assessment carried out had been demonstrated to be “appropriate” and that the proposed works were “the only viable option”. These are judgments, basically matters of opinion, and should have been open to councillors to question, but they weren’t given the information that would enable them to do that. The inference is plain: it was the councillors' job to rubber-stamp the proposal, and they didn’t really have any alternative. They were being pressurized to do what the people driving Option A want.

‘If you read through the Planning Officer’s report you find around 30 instances of “It is considered that ...” or “Such-and-such is considered to be ...”. Almost every single one is trying to pull the wool over councillors’ eyes and pressurize them into accepting it and not questioning it.

‘Next month there’ll be another Planning Officer’s Report to the Committee. If it’s written in the same biased way it will be another scandal.’

For detailed supporting evidence, see below Objection to Application No.10-0095-LBC for Listed Building Consent in respect of proposed works at Penzance Harbour.

Peter Levin is the author of Making Social Policy (Open University Press, 1997).

Dr Levin's Objection : download pdf | view pdf

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