SPECIAL REPORT: Tumultuous week for Fenland Council as it admits planning process is shot to pieces

ANOTHER tumultuous week at Fenland Hall as the crisis over whether Tesco or Sainsbury’s get to build a supermarket at Whittlesey engulfed the planning department.

The tentacles of what’s become known as ‘supermaket-gate’ stretch wide and deep, last night claiming high-profile casualties and almost certainly prompting the supermarket chains to seek compensation and possible legal action.

Meanwhile, two prominent councillors have lost their jobs and the entire planning committee is to be stood down

IT was mid-evening on Tuesday that Fenland District Council finally admitted its planning process was shot to pieces ... and �councillors were under investigation as it dropped the bombshell 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 conceded, a “serious and substantial risk” the council could not sustain decisions already taken should a judicial review get under way.

Allegations made against councillors of improper �conduct will be investigated by the council’s new �conduct committee chaired by the former deputy leader �Councillor Fred Yeulett, himself no stranger to Fenland Hall machinations.

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Cllr Yeulett fell on his sword during a period which saw his then leader Geoff Harper also lose his job three years ago. As a consequence, Cllr Alan Melton again became leader.

The latest twists and turns prompted an immediate response from independent councillor Mark Archer, who called for “political �resignations at the highest level and an independent investigation into this mess”.

That might just be happening.

Councillor Jan French (inset), the mayor of March and the person widely credited with causing much of the current mayhem, has been sacked from the cabinet.

Cllr Melton has taken her off the planning committee and removed her as his cabinet member for planning improvement.

Surprisingly, the vice-chairman of the planning committee, Councillor Martin Curtis, who stood aside to enable him to speak up for and campaign to win consent for Sainsbury’s, is also on the way out.

Cllr Melton believes he had gone too far in support of one party against another and had quoted misleading facts and figures.

But it is the decision to stand down all of the planning committee that remains the most controversial.

Some may expect to be re-selected but whether that includes the chairman, Councillor Phil Hatton, remains unclear.

His casting vote at the September meeting which saw Tesco narrowly scrape home with consent to build alongside Sainsbury’s opened the floodgates to the current troubles.

Cllr Melton will be looking for a tougher, more experienced chairman – whether Cllr Hatton fits that bill, he won’t say.

What Cllr Melton does recognise is his own responsibility “which, put simply, is to clear this up and restore people’s perception of Fenland District Council. That perception for now is bad and I intend we should restore it quickly”.

Cllr Yeulett and his committee will be left to scrutinise the actions of those councillors on the receiving end of complaints – there will, insists Cllr Melton, be no cover-up.

He added: “I note Mark Archer’s comments about fearing a whitewash – there won’t be one.”

Meanwhile, he’s leaving it to his officers to explain the advice from counsel (“very expensive counsel,” said Cllr Melton) who looked at the council’s handling of the supermarket applications.

Their advice is that the process is flawed and while councillors can go against officers’ advice, the decisions have to be sound. Thus far, says Cllr Melton, the opinion is that the grounds for approving applications are unsafe.

Like some latter-day Bobby Ewing dream, the past few months will cease to exist and a fresh start and fresh applications is the only way forward.

Counsel has advised that both the Tesco and Sainsbury’s bids for stores in Eastrea Road, Whittlesey, should return for determination in January.

Plans for business units and a country park – the third of the decisions approved for that area – will also return for a fresh mandate.

Cllr Archer describes this state of affairs as “outrageous. Will the same ‘tainted’ members be allowed to review these applications? Will the Sainsbury’s original permission now be refused?”

He said: “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 Cllr Melton promised guests at Friday’s Fenland Enterprise Business Awards that he would act to restore the authority’s good name.

It seemed inevitable since then that some councillors would be removed but there will be no resignations or sackings among his officers.

That was another aspect of counsel’s opinion – namely, that officers had acted professionally throughout with advice to match. Only the vagaries and idiosyncratic nature of councillors themselves had raised alarm bells.

Mr Nourse believes that 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 programme of work together to enable this process to be managed effectively.

“This balances the need for a speedy resolution whilst ensuring that time is taken to make sure we are acting correctly and accurately.”

He also said: “The advice given indicates that there is a serious and substantial risk with the three committee 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 are considering their responses but since between them they are likely to have spent the best part of �1million, they will inevitably demand compensation and, quite probably, insist on the courts settling the row.