By Canterbury Labour Group / Miscellaneous / / 0 Comments

I’ve decided to post my speech in support of the petition to review the Council’s decision to sell the Oval.  The response of the committee was mixed with some hostility but many councillors were prepared to listen to the people of Whitstable speaking in favour of a review.  The good news is, the petition wasn’t thrown out.  The bad news is that the decision isn’t going through a full review but the committee will analyse how the decision was made and why.

I don’t know yet whether it will be put before the next meeting on October 22nd and am still awaiting key information from the Council.  In the meantime I’m still trying to fathom things out myself, working with other concerned councillors, past and present.

Regeneration and Property committee meeting Sept 17th 2015 – Suggested reasons for agreeing to revisit the decision.

Introduction

Due to the iconic status of the Oval, the complexity of the interrelating issues before us, the high proportion of confidential information and the failure to provide significant documentation to me as the Ward Councillor until late yesterday afternoon, I am seeking your support for a full review of the decision made in December 2014. This should happen, with all relevant information ‘on the table’, with relevant witnesses, an essential site visit and independent, including legal, advice to councillors. We cannot do justice to the people of Whitstable if we throw this petition out here and now.

My key reasons are –

The failure to consult on the sale itself with the local community which is acknowledged to be an issue – as the significant public and political sensitivities are recognised and consistently expressed by the Ward councillors. But this is then ignored and we were ‘fobbed-off’ through referral to consultation on the planning proposals. Why did the council decide not to consult or even notify the community of its intention to sell the site when the effect of this failure was to sow the seeds of suspicion and, critically, to bar the provisions of the Localism Act?

Related to this, is the continuing refusal to respond to key questions in the FOI request regarding price and the basis on which the decision to sell to SSDL was made. This was chiefly on grounds of confidentiality though there are, in my view, legitimate grounds for saying significantly more could have been disclosed, albeit with certain matters of detail redacted. The public interest would have been better served by disclosure as the disquiet shown by people of the town in this petition and here today indicates.

Specifically, regarding the decision-making and best value, it is unclear to me whether the decision not to dispose of the site by auction or defer the decision was actually made by the Executive at all. This decision was clearly critical to best value. In addition – and in light of the report also before this committee on The Mill Centre at Bridge this is all the more poignant – it is very likely that, had the Council given public notice of its intention to sell the site, local community bodies that would qualify under the Localism Act would have sought to bid for the Oval as an Asset of Community Value and retain its public use. Instead, they were barred from doing this by the decision not to go out to tender.
The price that was paid in itself, – this remains confidential but councillors are aware of it. We are also aware of the value attributed to the site by independent valuers from the information brought to us today. If we consider the difference to be significant, we have a fiduciary duty to examine this sui generis but also in relation to the projected cost of compensation to the developer and/or legal action. Questions should also be asked around marriage value (for whom, the Council or the Developer?) and overage (how is this possible when each plan presented over the last two years has reduced density?). Councillors should ask, is there any overage payable on the scheme currently in planning? These questions only serve to complicate and challenge the original decision taken last December.
Information which I consider germane to understanding what happened in particular in December – is confidential and therefore cannot be disclosed to the public. Some of it was either provided to me at 5pm yesterday afternoon (or has not yet been provided). I began a series of requests for this information and for it to be disclosed to the public through the council’s response to the FOI request, in June. The info includes the documents inc draft plans and cost/value analyses referred to in the Report to this meeting . I do not know whether Executive members all had site of the Urban Delivery report and related detailed costings so have not been able to verify which draft plans were actually before them, if any. How, if at all, do they differ from those brought to the pre-planning meeting, and subsequent planning submissions? I have a number of concerns about all this, notably in relation to –
– the nature and position of the public open space – its level (Sea St or Sea Wall?), whether it goes across the two combined sites and whether it enables the public to enjoy sea views. Does it constitute a Plaza or Piazza?
– the inclusion in the development at different stages in the plans of holiday lets – which appear to be precluded in the description of the mixed use development in the Draft Local Plan (at TC4 and TCL10) and are not considered in the Horsebridge Brief.
– the inclusion or otherwise of a number of retail units in plans before the Executive, given our Corporate Plan objective of growing our economy and the number of people in work (pledge 1). Who would gain from the single kiosk adjoining the public open space which is the only retail space in the current plan?
– questions around access to the site. The land registry map for the site K846966 shows clear and sufficient access from Sea St as part of the site, including a strip of land to the Northeast side of Brices Alley which was/is owned by the Council. There is also access from the side from the top of Brices alley and a ramp from Sea Wall level. These access points have been used for many decades by the Yacht Club, in particular from Sea St for vehicles. What did the Exec see as the issues with access – as it is rumoured they did – in December and why?
– at what point did the Horsebridge Brief cease to be considered valid as a planning document (which it undoubtedly still is) with its provision of car-parking, sea-wall level public space, harmony with the surrounding buildings and residential-only property?
Best Value, S123 of the Local Government Act 1972 and our fiduciary duty. I am not a legal expert but have Urban Delivery somehow indemnified the council by stating that these considerations are satisfied in the price paid as suggested in DK’s current Report? If they have, was this indemnification based on the initially envisaged scheme in 2013, the plan presented in the public consultation or something which could be described as sitting between the two? What is the legal effect of this indemnification especially if the current plans are thought to be significantly different? Where does that leave us as councillors now, given my second point about price paid versus real value of the site?

Public Open Space – I have alluded above to my concerns about the level of and view from the public open space or Plaza, as described in previous reports referred to in this one, and whether such a design resembles that presented in the current plan. I cannot overstate how important this is to the people of Whitstable and they have confirmed it here today. A public open space at Sea Wall level with views over Reeves Beach to the sea and our beloved Isle of Sheppey is of far greater intrinsic value than the one in the current plans.
But there is something else, I cannot understand why a legal officer would over-rule or discard the opinion of his predecessor that this land should be held, in accordance with historic undertakings by the Council, as public open space or why a Council, your Council, would just accept this. Maybe we should consider why there was no fear at the time of legal cases or pecuniary damages of upwards of £600,000 (as envisaged in the Report before us) having to be awarded to the people of the town as a result of that decision and the consequent loss of this rare and valued parcel of public open space in the town centre and just by the beach? Why is this so different? It was this legal shift that enabled the decision to sell to the developer and everything that flowed from it. How could the interests of the people of the town be discarded in this way without debate or consultation with them? Is it because on the one side we have a developer and on the other, the people? Well, I was elected to serve the people.