LETTER: Chance to call for openness

Your letters
Your letters

Horsham District councillor Claire Vickers is bringing a revised Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) to Cabinet on 22 September (8.9.16, p8).

This is a document required in law as laid down by Parliament. Cllr Vickers is quoted saying that she is ‘committed to involving our local communities in shaping the future of our district’ (8.9.16, p8).

Well those fine words are easily said, but what of her past actions in this regard? For this can be a guide to the future.

The law requires that a local plan is adopted in accordance with a council’s SCI as well as requiring consultation on issues and options of alternative sites.

In 2012 Mr Justice Lindblom quashed a decision of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council to rule out using land in Manydown village for the allocation of housing in its Core Strategy because of political interference in ruling that strategic site out where previously it had been chosen for housing.

So the SCI is a very important policy document indeed.

Your readers may well remember that one of the many facets of the sorry North Horsham saga was when Cllr Vickers immediately upon her appointment to cabinet, by Leader Cllr Dawe, moved her Planning Advisory Group from public session into private session thus tearing up the SCI policy which was already in place and had been previously voted upon by all councillors.

Cllr Vickers told this newspaper at the time: ‘Since becoming the cabinet member for living and working communities, I have realised that we need to be able to have a more open and frank debate at our Strategic Planning Advisory Group meetings. I have therefore decided that we will no longer be holding SPAG meetings in public’ (30 June 2013).

Cllr Vickers also changed the name of her Advisory Group from SPAG to PPAG. This was all done ignoring the SCI policy agreed by full council in September 2011.

I obtained through an FoI a number of emails about this matter. One email from a strategic planning officer dated 24 May 2013 entitled ‘SPAG not in public’.

This email to his senior officers pointed out the conflict between the Council’s current SCI and Cllr Vickers’ proposed course of action of moving the Advisory Group’s meetings into secret sessions. The officer reminded and warned his colleagues: “Following the email below about SPAG, please be aware that the published SCI states: [relevant paragraphs quoted]”.

This officer’s email followed on from another senior officer Ms Barbra Childs writing (23 May 2013) to Cllr Vickers and the Council’s Chief Executive “I have made both Tom [Crowley, Chief Executive] and Claire [Vickers] aware of your concerns re a potential increase in FOI requests and have explained how time consuming they are and the volume we get already. They are very sympathetic about this situation. There is no intention to increase anyone’s workload in this respect but Claire firmly believes that Members can have much more productive discussions if they can be frank and open, which is not possible when the press and public are present at SPAG.”

So the then Head of Strategic Planning Ms Barbra Childs was writing to the Chief Executive and another senior officer and copying in Cllr Vickers stating that Cllr Vickers didn’t want the press and public present in her Advisory Group meetings. Cllr Vickers’ unilateral action was done without any consultation or reference to any councillor.

At its meeting of all councillors at Council on 23 September 2011 HDC had adopted and reviewed its then Statement of Community Involvement. The opening paragraph in the introduction to the SCI at that time stated: ‘The aim of the Horsham District Council Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) is to ensure that the community is genuinely involved in the production of Planning Policy documents and to strengthen community involvement in planning and development in the District over time’ (para 1.1).

Your readers are well aware of the political interference in the local housing plan over the past three years.

Under Cllr Vickers’ stewardship in only a six week period in 2013 she was able to fundamentally change the Preferred Strategy reducing the previous allocation of houses in Southwater from 2,500 to 500 and changed the preferred strategic site stated in HDC’s earlier Core Strategy so that 2,750 houses and an industrial and warehouse park were dumped in North Horsham in what was then the Strategic Gap between Horsham and Crawley.

District councillors, Parish and Neighbourhood Councillors and the public must take this opportunity now to demand that Cllr Claire Vickers holds her Planning Advisory Group in public just as it was until 2013 when she put an end to that policy.

Dr Geoffrey Richardson

Tennyson Close, Horsham

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