Sunday 16th January 2022,
North Yorks Enquirer

Predetermination re: ARGOS Planning?

Predetermination re: ARGOS Planning?

  • – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, presenting a commentary on recent correspondence with SBC CEO Mike GREENE, placing him on notice of potential procedural improprieties as the Planning & Development Committee consider the ARGOS Planning decision.

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Once again, my apologies for a lengthy and complex article. I regret the lateness of its publication; I have been waiting for opinion.

On 23rd October 2021, I reviewed the Scarborough Borough Council YouTube Channel video of the meeting of Full Council, held at Scarborough Spa on Monday 6th September 2021.

I was present at that meeting to observe the debate on Councillor PHILLIPS’ motion, which I reproduce here for the third or fourth time. Be it noted that the motion makes no reference to Planning issues:

NB: “a full review of the business case”“good value for money”“increased costs” “hoped for return”.

The debate was hard-fought and some Councillors were, in their determination to prevent any review of the ARGOS ‘regeneration’ business case, scathing in their attacks on those with opposing views.

I was concerned that some Councillors who had spoke in vigorous support of pressing ahead with the project without any precautionary examination of the business case may be members of the Planning & Development Committee (which was originally scheduled to meet on Thursday 3th November 2021 to consider the Planning Application, subsequently re-scheduled to Thursday 9th December 2021).

It would have been unfair of me to stay silent on the subject; to do so could have risked allowing the Planning & Development Committee to render a Decision that was open to challenge in law, on grounds of certain ‘procedural improprieties’.

So I wrote to SBC Head of Paid Service and CEO to forewarn him of the Council’s vulnerability:

——– Original Message ——–

Subject:  Open Letter
Date:  Sat, 23 Oct 2021 01:20:38 +0100
From:  Nigel
To:  mike.greene@scarborough.gov.uk

Mr Mike GREENE – Head of Paid Service and CEO – SBC

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

Mike,

On advice, and at the request of electors and members, I write to apprise you of a potential cause for concern, the repercussions of which may be far-reaching for Castle Ward, the Council and the wider Borough.

This concern arises in regard to the meeting of the Planning & Development Committee scheduled for Thursday 4th November 2021.

As you are aware, the Chair of the Committee is Councillor Subash SHARMA [Lab.] with whom I had the pleasure of a short but cordial conversation at the meeting of Full Council on 6th September 2021. I am in no doubt that Councillor SHARMA is a knowledgeable, intelligent and highly articulate man, eminently capable of expressing his carefully considered views in a precise and unmistakeable manner. It is out of a profound respect for these qualities in Councillor SHARMA that I hope to spare him the risk of any negative imputations.

You will recall that Councillor SHARMA, in a finely focussed debate, spoke at some length (circa five and three-quarter minutes) on the subject of the ‘regeneration’ of the former ARGOS building.

Notwithstanding Councillor SHARMA’s caveat, declaring his position as Chair of the Planning & Development Committee, it has been suggested that the entire tenor of the Councillor’s words, in their natural and ordinary meaning, unequivocally demonstrated his committed support for the ARGOS scheme – and thus for his desire to see Planning Approval granted.

I invite you (and our readers) to review the video of Councillor SHARMA’s remarks:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJgm1c8Tak0

(You may wish to instruct one of your sub-ordinates to prepare a transcript).

It has been suggested to me that Councillor SHARMA’s remarks evince the characteristics of a “closed mind” and may thus fall foul of the requirements in respect to potential Predetermination, as set out in s.25 of the Localism Act 2011. You will no doubt recall the Guidance Notes:

Councillor SHARMA would appear to have chosen, imprudently, to eschew the Guidance.

In particular:

“Councillors should nevertheless still try to avoid doing or saying something before the proper decision-making meeting takes place that they have already – and finally – made up their mind on the issue”.

To my mind, nothing within the content of Councillor SHARMA’s remarks on 6th September 2021 suggests that his mind remains “open”. Every overt statement and nuanced allusion unequivocally brooks no other interpretation than clear evidence of his committed support for the ARGOS project, which ultimately depends upon Planning Approval.

I quote:

“This is an opportunity we should be grabbing with both hands”

Councillor SHARMA spoke of having:

“the courage of our convictions”

“Convictions” do not admit of doubt and are not the product of “an open mind”.

I do not begrudge Councillor SHARMA his “convictions”. We all harbour strong opinions. I have some of my own. However, I am not Chair of the Planning & Development Committee.

On an issue as contentious as this one -and in the interests of good order; certainly in the interests of ‘openness and transparency’ – it would be remiss of you to overlook the inevitable  public perception that Councillor SHARMA, who, in his capacity not merely as a member of the P&D Committee, but as its Chair, possessing the potential advantage of a ‘casting’ second and deciding vote, and as a member of a ‘ruling’ Labour Group so manifestly determined to inflict this universally unpopular project on residents of Castle Ward (and, in financial terms, residents of the entire Borough) seems to have allowed the “convictions” openly expressed in his own pursuasive rhetoric to close his mind to any arguments to the contrary, however meritorious.

Please advise Councillor SHARMA to shun all possibility of any allegation of bias by standing down from the meeting and nominating his chosen substitute, be that Councillor Sue TUCKER [Lab.] or Councillor Mike STONEHOUSE [Lab.].

Vice Chair Councillor John CASEY [Ind.] will, I feel sure, step up to the Chair and rise to the challenge of assuming control of what may be a fraught meeting.

Thank you for your consideration.

On another matter – perhaps of greater importance – I hope you will now give serious consideration, in the aftermath of the fatal stabbing of Sir David AMESS, Conservative MP for Southend West, to the renewed fear and anxiety of some of your Councillors (and members of the public) in reaction to credible threats to murder them, by stabbing, made by one of your Portfolio Holders.

Yours, with kind regards,

Nigel

In order to ensure that my email did not become ’embargoed’, having likely been intercepted and re-directed to the Single Point of Contact Folder (SPOC), accessed by Officers once monthly, I took the precaution of copying my email to selected Councillors, for the record.

I was wise to have done so.

Nevertheless, I have now had sight of clear evidence that my email to Mr GREENE was opened shortly before 8:00am on 25th October 2021.

I have waited in vain for a response, or even the courtesy of an acknowledgement.

Since then, I have learned that other allegations of Predetermination may have engaged Mr GREENE’s attention.

Take a look at the following email from Councillor Theresa NORTON [Lab.], stating her position on the ARGOS ‘regeneration’ project in response to a formal Planning Objection by a member of the public. I have annotated Councillor NORTON’s email in red to outline my concerns:

From: “Cllr.Theresa Norton” <Cllr.Theresa.Norton@scarborough.gov.uk>
Date: 21 October 2021 at 16:04:58 BST
To: [REDACTED]
Subject: Re: OBJECTION – Argos Site Dev Plans

Hi [REDACTED]

Thanks for your email, one of many on this issue.

This is how we stand from my perspective:

“How we stand” surely asserts a fixed position – a predetermind position, in my opinion. But there is more.

The Argos building has been an eyesore for many years, to the detriment of the old town, in my opinion, and no developers have shown interest in doing anything with it, until now.

This stands at odds with senior Labour members who have publicly asserted that the present administration inherited the ‘problem’ of the ARGOS building from the previous administration, who I know were approached by a Lancashire-based entrepreneur who had in mind a leisure and gaming facility.

It came to planning in 2019 and the majority of members agreed that it would be a good idea to develop the area by creating student accommodation and a small public square.

This is pure falsehood; the ARGOS proposal has never before been to Planning, not in 2019 nor on any other occasion, nor will it do so until 9th December 2021. To my knowledge, a majority of members has never agreed to develop “a small public square”.

It would benefit the Market Hall and Mr. Boyes is also a supporter of the scheme.

I can confirm that an overwhelming majority of stall-holders in the Market Hall and Market Vaults favours a large Town Square, as recommended in the Charter. It would have been surprising indeed had Mr BOYES not supported 210+ virtually captive potential customers on his doorstep. We live in a so-called ‘free market’ and Mr BOYES does no wrong in lobbying in favour of his own self-interest.

Like all councils SBC has had 60% cuts to its budget from government and must find ways to make money to pay for everything.

I have reported elsewhere on some of the ways in which the Council has found “ways to make money to pay for everything”. Unfortunately, some of these ways are, in my view (and I am far from alone), not entirely wholesome; I refer to the legal wrangle over the revenues from the legally ring-fenced revenues from the Whitby Harbour Undertaking (inc. Harbour Lands), the extraordinary to-ing and fro-ing of the Minimum Revenue Provision asset value enhancement, to name but two.

Whether we like it or not, money makes the world go around. We rely on developers coming in with plans and our officers assess whether they would benefit the town. On this occasion it was felt that this project would help with the town’s regeneration especially as the bottom end looks particularly neglected. The population of young residents would increase footfall and spending, reduce anti social behaviours and hopefully lead to further investment and improvement in the area.

To say that “We rely on developers coming in” is, sadly, all too true. Relying on Officers “to assess whether they [the plans] would benefit the town” is another matter. We have seen enough catastophic Officer-driven projects – the Travelodge acquisition being a case in point.

As for parking, we are assured that no town centre student accommodation have parking facilities.

It would have been helpful if the Councillor had cited sources.

The assurances can only have come from SBC Officers, because an objective examination shows that many Universities do provide for student parking

It is to be hoped that young people would be encouraged to cycle or take public transport. There are some mitigation’s for parking: no parking permits or scratch cards issued to students and contract parking for NHS staff. These will form part of the planning conditions if passed.

I am astonished that Councillor NORTON sees fit to make known that strategies have been prepared to impose parking conditions to mitigate any risk of Planning Refusal.

We have also been told that students prefer to live in town centres rather than near universities/hospitals.

Told? By whom? Those pesky Officers again?

Of course nobody has a crystal ball. We cannot be certain of outcomes. But a public piazza was never offered as a plan and is not something we can just create.

This is also deeply misleading; a “public piazza” was central to the vison of the Scarborough Renaissance Charter “Kissing Sleeping Beauty”, to which the then Leader, Councillor Eileen BOSOMWORTH [Con.], and the then CEO, Mr John TREBBLE, are signatories – along with the then Chief Planning Officer Mr Gordon SOMERVILLE and twenty or so other public figures. Of course it could easily be created – for less than a quarter of the cost of the student block. See my article, here.

But what we do know is that if we miss this chance of development from NHS and Coventry University we may be looking at the dilapidated Argos site for many more decades to come.

Councillor NORTON is ‘bigging up’ the present proposal as the “Last Chance Saloon”. I construe this to be another falsehood because I am in correspondence with another developer who has a very credible vision for a proper Town Square.

I’m sorry my answer probably doesn’t make you happy but I have to be realistic and pragmatic. A chance has come along to change the outlook of the old town and I think we have to seize the opportunity. I really hope that, should this project go ahead, the final outcome will be a positive for this town and your worries will not materialise.

If “we have to seize the opportunity” is not a clear indication that Councillor NORTON has already committed to supporting Planning Consent and does NOT approach the Planning meeting at which she is scheduled to appear with “an open mind”, perhaps Mr GREENE could tell me what would?

There can be no doubt that Councillor NORTON is a woman who adheres steadfastly to her convictions. She faces a number of appearances in various Magistrates Courts up and down the country on charges stemming from her part in the Insulate Britain campaign.

I would remind readers – and Councillor NORTON –  of the Guidance:

“Councillors should nevertheless still try to avoid doing or saying something before the proper decision-making meeting takes place that they have already – and finally – made up their mind on the issue”.

In my view, there can be no question that Councillor NORTON, like Councillor SHARMA is compromised by Predeterminatio and should stand down from the 4th November meeting of the Planning & Development Committee.

Many thanks [REDACTED]

Best wishes to you and your family

Councillor Theresa Norton
Eastfield Ward

It would be insulting to residents of the Borough were they to be assured by Mike GREENE that no whiff of Predetermination was evidenced in Councillor SHARMA’s remarks – or in the above email from Councillor Theresa NORTON. The fact that they are both members of the Labour Group does not exculpate their commitment to the ARGOS project in terms of Predetermination. They have both made it unequivocally clear, to me at least, that they do not retain “open minds”.

The Labour Group is supported in its administration by the Independent Group (not to be confused with the Cluster of Independent Members [C.I.M.] or the Yorkshire Coast Independent Alliance [Y.C.I.A.]).

So I was not surprised when an email from an Independent Group member of the Planning & Development Committee found its way to me, totally compromising a member of that Group – Councillor Phil KERSHAW [Ind.], who stated (as recently as 31st October 2021):

“I voted to support the project and still do. Nothing really has changed over the past 18 months or so.”

Clearly, Councillor KERSHAW has accepted as gospel Monitoring Officer Lisa DIXON’s ludicrous assertion that the viability of the ARGOS proposal has not been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the well-documented massive increases in construction/material/labour/transport costs and halving of Hight Street retail space rental revenues. In any event, stating “I supported the project and still do” can only be understood to mean that Councillor KERSHAW’s mind is already made up. That, in my view, is Predetermination.

Unfortunately, concerns over the possibility/probability of Predetermination having arisen amongst other members of the Planning & Development Committee do not stop there.

Readers who recall (as I did not, when I wrote to Mr GREENE) my article “Hats Off, John CASEY!”, in August 2019 (shortly before CEO Mike GREENE assumed his position as Head of Paid Service), will recall that Councillor John CASEY [Ind.], having voted in favour of the ARGOS ‘regeneration’ on 12th July 2019, issued a public statement via social media and the press, stating for the information of residents of the Borough and indeed the wider public:

  • “Be assured that on any other future vote on this matter I will be voting against it”.

The natural and ordinary meaning of these words allows for no other interpretation than Predetermination. Councillor CASEY has clearly uttered a firm public assurance that he will not vote FOR the Application. His mind is already made up. This, too, is PREDETERMINATION – at least insofar as my considered opinion holds true.

In my view, it would be prudent for the Monitoring Officer to pursue a diligent examination of the public pronunciamenti – in correspondence, to the press, or on video – of ALL of the members of the Planning & Development Committee, some of whom have, in my view, sailed very close to the bitter wind of Predetermination. It may even be that, were more members found to have made a Predetermination, the Committee may find itself inquorate (i.e. having insufficent members present to pass a lawful Resolution, either for or against granting Planning consent).

It will be interesting see which Councillors (if any) take the precaution of standing down voluntarily to avoid any potential impropriety.

It is clear that the Council already has serious concerns about the probity of the Planning & Development Committee in relation to the ARGOS ‘regeneration’ Planning Application; Deputy Monitoring Officer Carol REHILL emailed all members late on the afternoon of Friday 3rd December 2021, cautioning members about their conduct. I imagine that this email was all the response I would ever get from Mr GREENE on this subject. But he cannot complain that I did not give him fair notice.

The Planning & Development Committee comprises:

Labour Group

Independent Group

Conservative Group

Others

Mr St John HARRIS  is the Committee Secretary

It is rumoured that Councillor Alex BAILEY has been elevated to ‘Substitute’ status, though I have not seen this ratified by Full Council.

It is also rumoured that Councillor Marion WATSON will not attend – in which case, Councillor Heather PHILLIPS will be her Substitute. They are both Conservatives.

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