Planning ‘bias’ concerns cleared

Planning ‘bias’ concerns cleared

PLANNING officials were not ‘in the pocket’ of a developer who wanted to build on green belt land in Heckmondwike.

That is the conclusion of a Kirklees Council probe launched following a complaint about a retirement village scheme for Ponderosa.

Howard Cook MBE had his £35m project thrown out by councillors in 2011, against the advice of their own planners.

It was alleged that Kirklees Council got its role as a planning authority mixed up with its ambitions for economic development.

A report which cleared planning officials of bias was given to the council’s corporate governance and audit committee last Friday.

Head of audit and risk Martin Dearnley found there were links which created a perception of undue influence.

He noted relationships between developer Mr Cook (pictured) council officials and various other projects.

But Mr Dearnley decided the planning report backing the development was written objectively.

Councillors on the Heavy Woollen Planning Sub-committee went against that advice to reject Mr Cook’s plan.

A revised version was approved by the sub-committee – only to be thrown out by the main planning and highways committee.

In further twists the decision was overturned on appeal but then rejected by Secretary of State Eric Pickles.

Mr Cook (pictured left) is now back with a scaled-down £10m scheme that includes a care home for dementia sufferers and an outdoor activity centre.

Now moves to avoid the appearance of bias will include noting in reports whether or not a developer had been helped beyond normal practice.

Councillors should also have training on conflict of interest issues and their votes in planning meetings should be formally recorded.

Mr Dearnley told the corporate governance meeting: “One of the suggestions is for reports to be clear if the council will gain from approval.

“I think it’s right that the public should see that the council is being open and transparent about any potential gains.”

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