We went to an excellent meeting organised by the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District last week. It discussed involvement between the public and the council. New council leader Simon Cook spoke in support of this, and we seem to have an exciting and forward thinking new council. I’m convinced our current council support public involvement, but I’m bothered by a decision taken before the election that wasn’t as open as the vision discussed in this meeting.
I spent a lot of the meeting considering my experiences with trying to find out what’s going on with the Oval Chalet land. A planning application has been put forward for this council owned land and it seems it will be sold to the next-door Tile Warehouse. I say ‘it seems’ because it’s impossible to discover whether the land is sold already. The sale discussions were in private, and it seems likely that this deal is done.
A public consultation sought views on the plans. But if it is already sold then it’s a different kind of consultation, it’s ‘How do you like this deal that will happen?’ If it hasn’t been sold then it’s, ‘What do you think of this idea for the area?’
Someone at the CDCD meeting spoke about public involvement leading to better outcomes. I am sure that people are more inclined to buy-in to a decision made with their input, and a full understanding of the problems and facts.
I am also sure the opposite is true. With the Oval Chalet land the facts are not easy to know, this is due to legal reasons about confidentiality, plus poor communication of the available information. An email I received from the council property officer today told me of, ‘exempt information under paragraph 3 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972.’
A quick Google reveals that this is used to maintain confidentiality in council business affairs. Each time it’s used there is supposed to be a ‘Public Interest Test’. “Does the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information?”
I understand that the financial details could never be public, but the majority of information about the land deal is unknown. I feel that telling us a sale was being considered was very much in the public interest. I would have liked to know if the consultation would make much difference, which presumably it wouldn’t if the deal was agreed. I would like to know about this sale before it happened, because I would have told my councillor I’d like other ideas to be explored.
It is surely in the interest of the Whitstable public to have their views heard, and listened to when there is a chance for those views and ideas to make a difference. It is surely in the interests of the council to seek those views and explain the problems and issues so people understand, if only so they don’t get accused of being sneaky.
So, I have spent about a month writing emails, researching history, discussing this with people, and generally spending time, thought and energy on this situation. I now feel tied in to this whole saga, and much less willing to simply let it be. So, due to a lack of simple facts, someone like me, who fully supports our council and wants to understand their decision, has turned into a frustrated angry person.
I want to ask, ‘What’s going on please?’ but instead I’m getting information from a group using Freedom of Information requests. My local councillors have been great (thank you Brian, Ashley and Bernadette!) but there’s simply not much information to go on.
I’m imagining how it might have been to hear a message in 2014 saying, “Hello Whitstable, guess what? This land’s lease had expired, this means we can finally do something to improve this area! What do you think ?”
I believe the people of Whitstable would have jumped up and down and shouted, “Hurray, well done council, good news! Let’s finally get this eyesore sorted!”
The Oval Chalet land is simply a bit of wasteground near the sea. Like most people I’m glad it’s being developed because it’s tatty and unused. Passions are high for various reasons, but mostly because we all care about our town and want the best for it. The decision to build in a rare spot of land beside the beach should be approached thoughtfully and not rushed.
These are a few reasons why this matters to local people:
- There is a listing of ‘mixed use with public space’ on the local plan. ‘Public’ means you and me. This gets our attention.
- The council owns the land so people feel they have a right to know what’s being done with it, and also why. Giving views to my councillor when my words have no influence surely means the timing is wrong, it’s too late.
- Records suggests the land was sold to the council with a condition that it should benefit the elderly. There is no actual legal clause about the land use so personally I don’t think this means much. The land used to be a skating rink so it’s never been used to benefit old folks.
I believe that the council is supposed to get ‘best value’ on a sale. This is good for you, me and our council tax bills. So is value is all about the cash?
Not exactly. There is value in good planning, and there is value in open space, if there wasn’t we wouldn’t bother to put these details in the local plan. But how much public space gives us real value? And how do we suggest good ideas for a ‘public space’ when we don’t know the size of that space? All we know is that a developer wouldn’t spend much cash on this because it would eat into his profits.
There is an immediate conflict between a developer needing to maximise profit (more houses minimize the public space) versus the public’s desire for pleasant usable space (less houses more public space.) I think any local plan listing ‘public space’ should give dimensions to save us from headaches like this.
The developer’s plan showed housing and a small paved area outside a kiosk. The likelihood is the planning application will be denied and resubmitted, and we’ll end up with housing and a slightly larger paved area outside a kiosk.
Kiosks always have tables and chairs outside them, but if this happens I wonder if that’s really commercial space not public? Will anyone really enjoy this space? Will people walk from the beach and sit here, out of reach of the sea? We’re probably fighting for something that won’t even make much difference to our lives. An open bit will benefit the residents nearby, and look a bit nicer, but that’s it.
But I’ve come this far, I’m bothered, I’m ready to take this on. .. I suspect this isn’t a winnable fight but I’m committed. This is public involvement gone wrong. This is frustrated citizens hatching plans for placards and protests, because they care… and not even knowing if they are wasting their time on a lost cause.
I have a letter from a council property chap, a willingness to ask questions, and a desire to blog about all this. If openness and facts are a good thing (and I think they are) I can at least share information this way to dispel the misinformation. And I can give the point of view of one member of the public (me) even if these views may be aired too late to make a difference. If you have thoughts on this development do add a comment.
A part 2 post about the Oval Chalet can be found here.