EXCLUSIVE: Supermarket-gate decisions scrapped and councillors conduct probed as Fenland tackles planning crisis

FENLAND Council admitted tonight its planning process was shot to pieces and councillors were under investigation as it dropped the bombshell that all three decisions surrounding supermarket-gate had been scrapped.

Graham Nourse, chief planning officer, and Ian Hunt, head of legal services, admitted they faced challenges and threats from many quarters.

There was, they admitted, a “serious and substantial risk” that the council could not sustain decisions already taken should a judicial review get under way.

Allegations made against councillors of improper conduct will now be investigated by the council’s new conduct committee, says Mr Nourse and Mr Hunt.

Independent councillor Mark Archer immediately called for “political resignations at the highest level and an independent investigation into this mess”.

Officers explained that counsel had advised that both the Tesco and Sainsbury’s bids for stores in Eastrea Road, Whittlesey, should return for a fresh decision in January. Plans for business units and a country park – the third of the decisions approved for that area- will also be sent back to the planning committee for a fresh mandate.

However Cllr Archer – a substitute planning committee member- described the situation as “outrageous. Will the same ‘tainted’ members be allowed to review these applications? Will the Sainsbury’s original permission now be refused?”

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He added: “Under the new Code of Conduct regime the worst that can happen is a slap on the wrist and maybe a bit of re-training, so it will be a whitewash.”

That seems unlikely since Council Leader Alan Melton promised guests at last Friday’s Fenland business awards that he would act to restore the authority’s good name. It is inevitable some councillors will be removed from office- precisely who he is not yet saying. Tonight he was silent on the matter but that is not expected to remain the situation for long.

Meanwhile his officers will be trying to sell the prospect of a fresh debate to councillors.

Mr Nourse said by returning the matter to the planning committee “this will enable appropriate public participation and enable any other issues to be addressed.

“Officers will be working with the applicants to ensure that there is a fresh and detailed report presented to members which will enable full consideration of all relevant matters.

“The committee will not be bound by any previous decisions. We have put a detailed program of work together to enable this process to be managed effectively; this balances the need for a speedy resolution with ensuring that time is taken to make sure we are acting correctly and accurately.”

They add “The advice given indicates that there is a serious and substantial risk with the three comittee decisions as currently reached, namely that the council would be unable to sustain these through a judicial review process.

“The advice is also clear in stating that the applications are not currently capable of being properly determined at this time and that to refer them to the secretary of state would be simply improper at this time.”

Both Tesco and Sainsbury’s were unavailable for comment tonight but both are likely to have spent at least �1million between them already and may demand compensation to stave off a legal challenge.

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