March businessman questions if meetings between Tesco and Cabinet member of Fenland Council broke the rules

A TOP level probe was called for today into whether Councillor Jan French, a Cabinet member of Fenland District Council, broke the rules in steering through Tesco’s unexpected approval for a superstore in Eastrea Road, Whittlesey.

March businessman Bruce Smith, who heads the development company which won approval for a Sainsbury’s store in the same area of Eastrea Road, emailed senior officers of Fenland Council to express his concerns.

Mr Smith said that Cllr French, a member of the planning committee and Mayor of March, had discussed the outcome in advance of the meeting taking place and she had also telephoned Tesco’s corporate affairs representative Louise Gosling to discuss the matter the day before.

“Given that Cllr French drove this issue this information begs questions to be asked in so far as to whether predetermination has occurred,” he said.

He said this was over and above simply lobbying, especially in the light of assurances made after the August planning meeting that the decisions made then would not be revisited.

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“Why has this been allowed to happen?” said Mr Smith. “I will not rest until the root of this is uncovered.”

He also wants to know why a 10 minute break prior to yesterday’s debate was allowed and whether any contact with developers was made during that period.

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Mr Smith’s comments came as it was disclosed that Council Leader Alan Melton had called a mini summit of officials and Cabinet colleagues to debate the growing crisis over the supermarket decisions.

Cllr Melton, en route after the meeting to a long standing engagement at Downing Street with the Prime Minister David Cameron, said both the Sainsbury’s approval and the Tesco approval would be forwarded to the Secretary of State for comment.

The minister would either approve both applications or call them in – meaning a public inquiry will follow.

Cllr Melton revealed that last Thursday he had met with the three Cabinet members – who also sit on the planning committee -and told them “good luck and to listen to what your officers advise”. Ironically all three Cabinet members – Cllr French, Councillor David Oliver and Councillor Peter Murphy- rejected the officers’ advice and voted to allow the Tesco application.

The council leader said he remained outside of the planning committee decision making but he was advised, by council officials, that yesterday’s decision was taken democratically.

“The chairman of the planning committee (Councillor Phil Hatton whose casting vote won the day for Tesco) stands by his decision,” said Cllr Melton.

He said even if the decision had been different the likelihood of the matter being subject to a judicial review was high and this now seemed even more likely.

“Tesco has always made it clear they would be going for a judicial review,” he said.

Cllr Melton said the Secretary of State would rule within a month on the status of both applications.

He had “no comment” to make on the allegations by Mr Smith.

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