On 6th December 2017 Country Squire Magazine published “All Eyes on Torbay” highlighting the fact that Torbay Council were in danger of chalking up an ignominious first – a refusal to re-designate Neighbourhood Forums. Fortunately, Country Squire can now reveal that on the 7th December 2017, in an atmosphere demonstrating massive public support, sense prevailed and, in the presence of a significant number of their electors, the Councillors voted “unanimously” to re-designate all three Neighbourhood Forums.
But, oddly, unelected Torbay Council Officers are not taking this lying down.
This was clearly just the first battle in what now appears to be Torbay Council’s decision to declare open warfare, not only against the citizens of Torbay but against democracy itself. So It’s “All eyes are back on Torbay” – not just the eyes of the media, but of Michael Gove and Sajid Javid in particular, whose Conservative Party have a lot at stake in this area of the South West. Is Michael Gove going to claim to be a champion of the countryside and claim to represent rural communities while simultaneously allowing Torbay Council to ignore the democratic will of locals, many of whom live in rural hamlets threatened by dodgy, greedy and ill-thought out plans?
The Tory/Lib Dem Government’s flagship Localism Act of 2011 transfers a greater say in planning decisions to those most affected – i.e. the local communities. The idea was that Local Authorities work with their communities to produce a Local Plan which outlines the overarching planning framework for their areas. Neighbourhood Forums then, working with the Council and various Community Partnerships or Parish Councils, produce a Neighbourhood Plan that provides more detailed information on how the Local Plan should best be implemented within specific community areas. The importance of the Localism Act and community-driven planning has also been one of Theresa May’s government’s highest priorities as demonstrated by the passing of a new Neighbourhood Planning Act in April 2017.
The local MP Kevin Foster (Conservative), second from left.
In 2012 Torbay placed itself at the forefront of community based planning when it decided to divide its overall area of responsibility into three smaller areas – Torquay, Paignton and Brixham – each with its own Neighbourhood Forum. These three areas are among the largest planning areas in the country, with Torquay, for example, covering a population of 65,000. This arrangement of Neighbourhood Forums has generally been regarded as trailblazing the production of large Neighbourhood Plans and putting local democracy into practice.
After the vote on the 7th December 2017 to re-designate the Forums it was hoped that common sense would prevail and the Council and Neighbourhood Forums would work co-operatively together so that the Neighbourhood Planning process would move smoothly forward through the last few days of Public Consultation and on to the Examination stage – but NO.
At the last minute of the Consultation Period, Torbay Council Officers launched a blistering attack on the Neighbourhood Plans by submitting a report that would delete, or severely dilute, virtually every policy, including scrapping policies that would protect Torbay’s Green spaces, the Countryside and Rural Villages from inappropriate development; and even Devon’s rare legally-protected wildlife would be jeopardised. The report also rejects any future community involvement. This report was submitted in spite of the fact that Senior Torbay Planning Officers have worked with the various Neighbourhood Forums throughout the five years 2012-2017 of the Plans’ development, and knowing that it was contrary to overwhelming public support for the policies within the Plans, as evidenced by comments from the public during the consultation stages. The only negative comments have come from developers, so you can draw your own conclusions.
The three submitted Neighbourhood Plans meet, and in some cases exceed, all the required growth and development targets laid out in the adopted Local Plan, and have been independently checked to ensure that they are in “General Conformity” (as required) with both the National Planning Policy Framework and Torbay’s own adopted Local Plan (2015).
So why have Torbay Officers disregarded the Localism Act, overwhelming public opinion and even democracy? And why aren’t the elected Councillors standing up and fighting for their constituents?
Maybe the Officers fear that public participation will take away the control they currently enjoy on planning matters, and thereby remove their ability to “do whatever they want”. Or maybe they are so influenced by profit-seeking developers that they have forgotten their Code of Ethics to serve their community. Either which way, there is a preponderance of Tories involved here at a local level, letting the side down – they need to be told to behave democratically by their superiors in the party, and represent the people they serve rather than dismissing them and behaving disgracefully.
Given the local communities’ many years of dedication, commitment to Torbay, and their depth of access to Government Departments and the country’s finest planning lawyers, Country Squire strongly urge Torbay Council to take back control of their Council Officers to re-think their war-mongering strategy, to respect the law, and allow decency and democracy to prevail. Surely it would be insane not to. The alternative is embarrassing for the Council and for the Government – as their misdemeanours get dragged through the highest courts of the land. Don’t forget, Torbay Council, current legislation gives communities the right to challenge how their Local Authority is run.
The community will no longer accept planning decisions being foisted on them by Officers who are not directly affected by the decisions they are taking. The old confrontational and adversarial system of planning is over – it’s time to respect the wishes of their communities and abide by the law. It just so happens that the areas where previously Officers ran roughshod are now inhabited by some big hitters from business and the Law who can see through the Council’s behaviour and will fight them to the hilt; not allowing them to disrupt their retirement on the beautiful South West coast.
“All eyes are back on them now”, so say Country Squire and other enlisted media organisations, some who have followed the shenanigans surrounding Torbay planners for many years and recently dusted off old video of previous mischiefs.
Torbay Council’s every move is being scrutinised by the local community, attentive journalists, animal rights lobbyists, Westminster, and a myriad of other “interested parties”, all ready to go to war against them if things don’t change. This is a great opportunity for Javid or Gove or both to shine.
If they do not reform immediately, then not only will Torbay Council achieve a first in blocking democracy, all hell will be paid at forthcoming elections – and by Sajid Javid and Michael Gove – when the local community defends its green and pleasant territory from misguided Officers and miscalculating developers.
We at Country Squire Magazine don’t take kindly to seeing the law disregarded and developers threatening the Great British Countryside.
Torbay Council, wake up. Do the right thing by those you are paid (by that we mean legitimately paid) to serve.