By Neil Speight, Editor.
ANOTHER ignominious chapter in the inglorious history of Thurrock Council planning services was written on Thursday evening.
Planning committee chairman Stuart St Clair-Haslam (pictured) emerged from yet another a night of shame in the Council Chamber with the look of a man mentally battered into submission.
He had started the evening like a lion, roaring in defence of democracy, but ended it like the badger I passed on the A13 this morning – crushed, bloodied and destroyed after stepping into the path of an overwhelming force.
An emotive, passionate speech in which he pledged that the power of the people would not be subverted by bureaucracy proved nothing more than rhetoric at the end of a meeting that once more brought the authority into disrepute.
New followers of the trail of shame need to be updated. Key items on the agenda – or not as the officer corp had indicated – were three planning applications previously deferred on a number of occasions.
Cllr St Clair-Haslam had given his word that tonight would be the conclusion of a long and troubled process but he found the carpet pulled from underneath him by officers – acting, I understand, on a personal directive from acting chief executive Bob Coomber. They decreed applications for Orsett Hall Hotel, Manor House Farm in Bulphan and Mardyke Farm, Aveley, would not be heard.
Cllr Haslam decreed they would and, with the backing of planning councillors, instructed officers to bring papers to the chamber.
A clash of Titanic proportions was looming as councillors moved onto other business after giving a clear directive on what they expected to follow.
Sadly, the plot was then lost as a succession of applications were deferred as councillors managed to get themselves into an almighty mess getting to grips with a new constitution.
Plans for a block of flats in Tilbury were bizarrely deferred for a site visit as councillors clashed with a highways officer about the practicalities of a car lift system; the pleas of residents and a ward councillor against a homes development in Stanford-le-Hope resulted in a site visit to a place already twice visited and a debacle erupted around plans for 14 new homes in Aveley.
Councillors clearly lost the plot as officers sought to impose their will and a new constitution on councillors who appeared not to realise it was policy they had wholeheartedly supported when it was introduced.
More than one councillor was heard to utter: “We hadn’t realised it would be so complicated or mean this. We didn’t vote for this.”
They certainly did and, to be fair, the new constitution offers simple, clear guidelines that offer clarity and a clear trail of who said what – and when. In the past the lack of clarity has brought the planning process into deep trouble. The problem is, it appears the councillors haven’t read it.
Members of the public were reduced to laughter, disbelief and dismay as the sorry saga was played out – and in the end left unresolved.
Councillors who had taken an adjournment to try and resolve what they were about, clearly had little comprehension of what was going on and officers, who in fairness tried to give practical if unwelcome advice, were left equally bewildered.
Banned mobile phones ringing at empty desks and in councillors’ pockets didn’t help!
It was, in short, a farce.
But worse for Cllr St Clair-Haslam was to follow when, after a recess, the chamber reconvened.
The battle lines had been clearly drawn by the chairman but he was forced to eat humble pie over his earlier brave words as the controversial applications. It might have been a victory for officer power but to the few who had remained in an increasingly dispirited chamber, it smacked of the death of democracy.
In a brave finale, Cllr Haslam called for a new meeting in seven days to consider the issues but was told it would be held only at the whim of Mr Coomber.
The councillors also voted that they would, in the face of a planned cancellation by officers, still hold a scheduled meeting in May.
It was a vote of defiance as much as anything else – whether it happens remains to be seen!