EXCLUSIVE: Planning committee chairman could fall on his sword as Fenland faces crucial supermarket-gate month

PLANNING committee chairman Phil Hatton appears to have lost the confidence of colleagues and is expected to either resign or be forced to stand down within the next 10 days.

I am told Fenland Council Leader Alan Melton is being extensively lobbied to remove Cllr Hatton from the chairmanship with many now convinced his head is the minimum required to stem increasing consternation over ‘supermarket-gate’.

Hot favourite to replace him is his vice chairman, Councillor David Connor who believes a fresh start is needed as resolution of the Whittlesey supermarket crisis looms.

Last Thursday- at their final meeting of the year- Fenland councillors decided to go ahead with a planning committee on January 9 to resolve where the crucial supermarket-gate meeting on January 23 would take place.

Behind the scenes there had been plans for an informal meeting of planning committee members – with the press excluded- to resolve the venue but this was halted on the orders of Cllr Melton.

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An attempt to orchestrate an official planning committee last Thursday was also thwarted following legal advice to councillors that it would almost certainly be unconstitutional.

Those keen for a planning committee last Thursday- informal or formal- had hoped it would bring about a vote of no confidence in Cllr Hatton, whose casting vote has, in part, allowed decisions to allow both Tesco and Sainsbury’s to build in Eastrea Road, Whittlesey.

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It is difficult to see how Cllr Hatton can survive. I am told those in favour and those against him staying are evenly balanced but this would not be enough to save him.

What’s likely to happen is an invitation to meet Cllr Melton and his deputy, Councillor Chris Seaton, when he would be invited to consider his position.

Cllr Melton has refused to return any of my calls – unusually for him- which suggest the briefings by both ruling Conservative group and opposition councillors have merit.

Officially the planning committee cannot remove its chairman (the appointment being in the gift of the leader) but realistically a vote of no confidence, even if narrowly successful, would make his position untenable.

Meanwhile Councillor Martin Curtis – who lost his place on the committee after being labelled a ‘mischief maker’ by Cllr Melton- said it was a “no brainer” when it came to the venue.

He has long campaigned in favour of Sainsbury’s and has vehemently opposed the plan to hold the deciding meeting at Wisbech St Mary- which was originally decided on the casting vote of Cllr Hatton.

In a clear reference to Cllr Curtis he said he would not countenance “an outright threat that unless the meeting was held at Whittlesey he would bring Whittlesey to Fenland Hall”.

Cllr Michael Bucknor told councillors that it would be “unfortunate if we got ourselves in a situation where we weren’t being transparent.”

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