At a full council meeting on Wednesday (July 22), Wealden District Council’s lead member for planning and development Ann Newton was asked to comment on the circumstances surrounding an application to build up to 119 homes on land off of Eridge Road in Crowborough.
The application had been brought to a special hearing earlier this month, despite having been refused at a meeting of planning committee north in March.
The full reasons for the second hearing have not been made public nor, opposition parties say, shared with councillors.
The matter was raised as a question by Cllr Dr Patrica Patterson-Vanages, leader of the council’s Green Party group and a member of planning committee north.
She said: “On July 10, in what was a highly unusual move, officers recalled the committee to vote on the same application again. This time the result was to approve the application.
“The councillors took part in a briefing two days before the second meeting [and] were told someone had done something wrong and that we could not be told anything more due to legal considerations and that we were being protected.
“We were also dutifully instructed by our legal department about the difference between showing predetermination before a vote – which is not allowed – or showing predisposition.
“The questions I will ask in a minute are not to raise allegations but instead to help Wealden show transparency in its planning process, particularly in view of the allegations of corruption surrounding the housing secretary Robert Jenrick and his relationship with property developers.”
She added: “Given the questions raised over possible pre-determination during the second meeting of planning committee north, are we going to go for a third decision or is the voice of residents not as important the voice of developers?
“My second question is when will we councillors going to receive a full report of what happened at planning committee north?
“Given that the decision went in favour of the developer presumably there is no reason to withhold any information from us any longer.”
Cllr Newton declined to answer the questions.
She said: “I never answer questions about individual planning applications in the public domain, such as at full council.
“I am afraid I’m going to stick to that in this incidence. I can also just reply, I did have a letter from the Green Party’s agent regarding this matter and a reply has been sent this morning.
“As I said, I will not answer question on individual planning applications in this forum, but to actually use the word corruption I did not like at all and I can assure you there is no such corruption at Wealden District Council.”
Council leader Bob Standley meanwhile called on Cllr Patterson-Vanega to withdraw her comments related to Robert Jenrick, but she declined.
A similar question was raised by Liberal Democrat Gareth Owen-Williams, also a member of planning committee north. He clarified that his question was about the procedure followed rather than the individual application.
Cllr Newton repeated her refusal to comment on individual applications.
Wealden officials say the decision to refuse the scheme was not enacted after “concerns were raised about the decision-making process” and taking legal advice.
The council had not made this legal advice public and has also declined to specify what concerns were raised and who by.
However, in correspondence with the council (obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request), a representative of developers Fairfax Acquisitions Limited complained that the reasons given for refusal had not been discussed at a previous meeting in February and cited “potential procedural errors”.
The representative also “urged” the council not to formally issue the decision notice.
The letter read: “We are aware that the decision on the application has not yet been formally issued, but given the potential procedural impropriety in terms of the decision-making process and therefore the associated legal risks.
“I would urge you to refrain from doing so until you have had an opportunity to review a further, more considered response on the issues raised above (including our view on potential procedural errors) that we will send across to you later this week.
“Fundamentally, I am sure both our client and Wealden District Council would like to avoid the (we consider) unnecessary time and expense, should our client seek to take the refusal of the application further.”
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