My KCC Election Manifesto & Video

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why Thanet Council Wants to Silence Me. The Truth

Several weeks ago I submitted  a complaint to Thanet Council about matters relating to East Kent Opportunities (EKO) a limited liability partnership which is jointly owned by Kent County Council and Thanet District Council. Thanet Council leader Clive Hart and Chief Executive Sue McGonigal are members of the EKO management board.

Last year EKO submitted a planning application to Thanet Council to build 550 houses on land they own at the New Haine Road Westwood Cross. The planning application was rejected because it was contrary to Thanet Council's planning policies. The board of EKO (including Hart and McGonigal) voted to appeal against Thanet Council's decision to reject their  planning application. The appeal will be heard later this year.  It  will take a week and cost somewhere in the region of £100,000. You will have to pay for this through your council tax.

It seems strange to me  that the 2 most powerful people at Thanet Council would support a planning application which was contrary to the policies of the Council which they run. Even stranger that they would support a massively expensive planning appeal against the council which they run, especially when its finances are extremely tight. Stranger still, Council Leader Hart is on record as  telling the  press that Thanet Labour Councillors totally oppose  the EKO planning application at New Haine  Road. I wonder if he ever told his colleague councillors that in his capacity as EKO Board member he was acting against the policies agreed by his party and which he previously espoused in the media.

But, setting aside Hart's jaw dropping hypocrisy there are  more serious issues at work here. In early March  I asked to examine the New Haine Road planning file. In that file I discovered an e-mail from Council Chief executive McGonigal dated 29 May 2013. The e-mail has already been published in the press. It said "Any news? (of a briefing document requested by McGonigal from  EKO Executive Officer Matt Hyland). I have my meeting with TDC planners this afternoon, and I need  this to illustrate the argument I want them to use to support the application". 

When I saw  this e-mail I immediately recognised its potential significance and  slipped it into my pocket when the Council officer supervising me popped out of the room. I took the e-mail home, scanned it and then advised the Council what I had done and returned the original. I took this step because I didn't want this e-mail to "disappear".

It seemed strange to me that someone who is not a qualified Town and Country Planner and someone who is also a board member of the organisation submitting the planning application would feel that it was appropriate to meet with planning officers responsible for determining   the EKO application to "illustrate the arguments I want them to use to support the application". Imagine you had submitted an application to build  an extension to your home. Would you be able to meet with the planners to "illustrate the argument you wished them to use to support the application". Course not!  

But it gets even stranger! At the time of writing this e-mail  McGonigal had already received a communication from the Council's Planning Manager advising her that the planning application from EKO was contrary to Thanet Council's planning policies. So tell me this - how can someone  meet with qualified  town planners to "illustrate the arguments I want them to use to support the application" when  they have already  advised you in writing that in their professional opinion the application cannot be granted. And it was not just one meeting with planners it was 2!  I also understand that at one of those  meetings with the planners, Mr Matt Hyland, the executive officer of EKO was present.

I wonder out loud if it is usual and regular  practice  for Thanet Council's Chief Executive to hold meetings where, as a non-qualified planner, she provides illustrations of complex technical planning arguments which her team of experienced qualified planners can use to grant planning permission for controversial applications? It all seems very unusual to me.

So what happened next? Well a reasonable person would have expected the planners to stick with their original advice - the application cannot be granted because it contravenes Thanet Council's planning policies. Well surprise, surprise, they didn't. After 2 meetings with the Chief Executive and/ or Mr Matt Hyland, the planners recommendation was to "defer for a site visit". This is an unusually rare  recommendation for planners to make.  I wonder what supernatural forces, or mind altering substances may have persuaded the planners to  ignore their previous advice,  which co-incidentally was  supported by the opinion of a planning barrister,  and replace it with a non-committal/ neutral recommendation?

I find it hard to believe that anyone would try to improperly influence the planning process by asking planners to  act against their professional judgment. This would be gross  misconduct. Most of the officers  I know at Thanet Council are dedicated, hard working and honest people and would regard such behaviour as totally  abhorrent. But nevertheless  in the interest of probity and planning transparency  I contacted the  Council asking for an investigation into the Chief Executive's e-mail and her  meetings with planners so that I could be reassured that Thanet's planning service was an honest service which had not been subject to improper influence.

I expected this investigation to be swift and that it would return a clean bill health. I was sure  that there would be perfectly reasonable explanations about my concerns. But I was wrong. As soon the Council Monitoring Officer raised my concerns the Leader of the Council, Clive Hart, demanded to know why I had not been reported to Kent Police for stealing the e-mails from the Council. He then wrote to the Chief Executive suggesting that she arrange for the matter to be reported  to the police.  It's hard to believe, that having been made aware of a serious complaint about planning probity, the only thing on the mind of Council Leader Hart is to set the Police on the person who raised the alarm. Worse still Hart then emails the person subject to my complaint  asking her to contact the Police to report me for stealing a council e-mail. Hart appears to have  been  focused  on shooting the messenger rather acting like most good leaders would do by supporting an open and transparent investigation to ensure the probity of the planning service.

Unbeknown to me, as soon as  complaint was  logged into the system a whole series of manoeuvres  and secret meetings were triggered. Efforts were made  to remove the supervision of the investigation into my complaint from the control of the Council's Monitoring Officer, Harvey Patterson and to hasten his departure from the Council following a staff re-structure.  These manoeuvres appear to have  involved Council Leader Hart  and Cabinet member Michelle Fenner supported by several senior officers. Most astonishing of all the assessor who was appointed to examine my concerns did not interview planning officers to establish whether any improper pressure had been exerted on the decision making process.

So serious were the behind the scenes  manoeuvres that the Council Monitoring Officer Patterson took the unusual step of  publishing  a 13 page letter supported by 20 pages of documentary evidence, which set  out detailed allegations about how efforts appear to have been made by senior staff and politicians  to undermine and manipulate the investigation into my complaint.

This letter was sent to members of Thanet Council's General Purposes Committee which met this week. Members of the General Purposes  Committee, incensed  by the allegations made in Mr Patterson's letter,  moved  a vote of no confidence in committee Chair, Councillor Michelle Fenner, for her alleged role in undermining the complaint management process.  4 Labour Party councillors - Allan Poole (Michelle Fenner's partner), Michelle Fenner, Harry Scobie and Peter Campbell voted  to support the Chair and 6 councillors voted against the Chair. Incredibly, with a vote of no confidence clearly against her, Fenner refused to leave the Chair. One member, obviously annoyed by her actions, asked if her conscience was not troubling her about staying in the Chair when a majority of members didn't want her there. Clearly not.

The meeting then moved on to discuss the investigators report which found there was no case to answer with regard to my complaint. However a majority of councillors at the meeting were so concerned about the contents of the Monitoring Officer Letter and the fact that planning officers had not been interviewed, that they voted to take legal advice about the implications of rejecting the investigators report. 

Shortly after the meeting I was provided with a copy of the Monitoring Officer letter by another councillor.  I spent  the remainder of the evening reading the letter.  To say that it was dynamite was an understatement. Extremely serious allegations of misconduct were made against senior staff and  political leaders. These allegations were backed up with supporting documentary evidence. I felt I had no alternative but to publish the letter in the public interest, especially because, less than 24 hours before, Thanet Council had been slated by the Local Government Association Peer Review for dysfunctionality  and bad behaviour. The next day I put the letter up on my  blogsite and within a couple   
of hours of publication I received an e-mail from Thanet Council advising me to take down the letter or face legal action.

Yesterday the Council Chief Executive Sue McGonigal informed Monitoring Officer Patterson  that he had been made redundant from the Council with immediate effect. He was ordered to clear his desk under supervision and escorted from  the building. There is growing anger amongst many councillors about the actions of the Chief Executive and  doubt is being expressed about whether  she had  the authority to take this action. The Council's Labour leadership still appear to be backing McGonigal, but I wonder how long Labour councillors will continue to defend what appears to be more and more indefensible?

So there you have it. My complaint about alleged improper conduct by the Chief Executive in relation to a major planning  application appears to the Monitoring Officer to have  unleashed a high-level political and officer effort to undermine a  fair and proper  investigation. I am threatened and gagged by the Council for publishing, in the public interest,  the  Monitoring Officer letter. The Monitoring Officer is made redundant with immediate effect and escorted from the Council Offices.  Why on earth would  Council Leader Hart, some of his cabinet colleagues and several senior members of staff conduct and/ or promote such alleged misbehaviour if there was nothing to hide? As my mother used to say to me if it talks like a duck it must be a duck..


23 comments:

  1. Well done Ian. Harvey has already left TDC as of yesterday (Thursday)? Who is the Assessor? This whole episode and treatment of you is disgusting - keep asking questions of EKO etc. Interesting the LGA report itself refers to instances of corruption both in the past and recently - with the TDC Scrutiny report of corruption it's all very clear how bad TDC is.

    The newly advertised positions are for salaries of c.£60-90k. Is this too much for a small council?

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  2. Anonymous at 16:38 - no those salaries are not too much. In my view, part of the problem that Ian's exposed above is because of the lack of calibre of some of the senior officers - you will only attract good people to come and work for TDC if you pay them a viable salary.

    However, there is a very real danger that because of the current reputation of TDC, nobody in their right minds would want to work there - it would be career suicide. Unless of course, the old guard is removed, and pronto. If the current Chief Exec is involved in the hiring of the new people, you're not going to get anyone appointed who's willing to rock the boat, you'll just get the same situation repeated. And, in fact, entrenched, and she'll feel that she's untouchable.

    These are 'interesting times' and worrying for all of us who pay Council Tax in Thanet. Not to mention the fact that all of this is distracting us all from the very good work that takes place in all the various Council wards. For every prima donna on the front benches, I'm willing to bet that there's 10 working hard behind scenes to support the residents and the place that we all care about.

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    1. Would the current leadership of TDC actually be capable of recognising quality? Do they themselves have the kind of background where they would have come into contact with high calibre managers and executives? Perhaps we have little people playing at being big with chaos the result.

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    2. My point exactly. If you rely on those who are there at the moment to appoint new staff, then you will perpetuate the same sorry situation. I have no idea what you do - as Schmoozyschlepp says if it were school, it would be in special measures. And rightly so.

      Perhaps the Councillors should show some bottle, and refuse to ratify the appointment of any new senior staff until the investigations into the alleged actions of the current crop of senior officers is complete.

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    3. Council meeting next week, full council on vote of no confidence of SM...we should all be outside that meeting giving our opinions also on the fact that SM is not in control of finances or anything else come to think of it. Paid how much for doing so? How much has SM cost us....millions!!!!!

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    4. Excellent news 18:30 - Macgonigal should be sacked. She is useless and has allowed the corruption while she picks up her absurdly inflated salary for doing nothing.

      With Patterson gone, the perfect opportunity to be rid of her. Mark Seed as an interim CEO and review of the whole rotten structure.

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  3. I am loosing the will to reside and have a business in Thanet. The toxic nature of the local authority just seems to continue to pollute. Local people and local business deserve a whole lot better.

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  4. loosing 17:53? you need to tighten it.. or do you mean losing?

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  5. Just seen the news reports, their on www.thanetwest.blogspot.com if you haven't seen them already

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  6. I hope Harvey Patterson sues for unfair dismissal and takes all this crap to the courts!
    There should be a petition calling for Sue McGonigal's resignation as she has actively brought the Council into disrepute. And the Labour Party needs to pull it's finger out and shed the dangerous wheeler dealers as they are just compounding what appears to be mass incompetence by leading Council Officers and Councillors. Thank you Cllr Ian Driver for persisting in exposing the rot in this organisation!

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  7. Didn't the resignation of HP get discussed several moths ago. Was he still at TDC working his notice period. Does being made redundant (& for a necessary post) not now put him in line for redundancy pay. Ian - haven't you got a camera on your mobile phone to save having to take documents off site?

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    1. If he is to be replaced, he is not redundant. You can only be redundant if your job goes.

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    2. No. The role is changed so the person in the old role is then redundant. Why was he already on notice and the public did not know. Secret deals again

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  8. Mark Seed who handled the Transeuropa fiasco and can't keep the cliff tops swept of broken glass as interim CEO, no thanks.

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  9. Everyone take note how left to the party politicians none of this would have come to light. This shows how hopeless they are, there is no effective opposition, no effective anything much at Thanet Council, and especially so when it comes to the executive club. Either you’re behind the chief executive or you’re out in her now annual restructure. Despite “open government”, audits, reviews, scrutiny panels and ethical guidelines it has taken an isolated individual to stick his neck out and reveal the incompetence and wrong-doing at TDC. Party politics sucks, and I suggest that largely accounts for the lack of quality to choose from when you are stood in the voting booth trying to think who is the least worst person to vote for.

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  10. If planning is given for 550 dwelling at EKO by how much will the assets of EKO increase? My guess is that it would be worth at least £30 millions . Not bad for my estimate of £10 millions that it has cost so far and it would certainly get TDC finances out of a hole. I know that EKO has paid employees but do the KCC and TDC management representatives receive any remuneration?

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  11. Nothing to stop McGonigal now Patterson is out of the way! Surely the Council is without a Monitoring Officer now - is this allowed?

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  12. NAIL THEM ALL

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  13. We all need to know on what grounds Harvey Patterson was dismissed. Ex Head of Legal & Democratic Services at Thanet District Council.

    Democracy indeed!

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  14. If Thanet's councillors ever wanted to redeem themselves, now is the time to do it. They should ALL be insisting that this matter is aired at full council and that the course of action is decided by a vote of the full council making them all collectively accountable. This whole sorry mess has been caused because councillors have failed to take responsibility for running the council to which they were elected. They have been quite happy for a few rotten apples to run things in secret using sub-committees and the like to allow the rest of them to be able to say: "I didn't know anything about it." Sadly, the likely course of action is that they will all run in all directions to avoid taking responsibility and the whole sorry mess will drag on and on until we all lose the will to live.

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    1. We should draw up a blacklist of councillors who should resign and electoral policies eg ban secret meetings. TDC is broken.

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  15. Ian, had not realised you had moderation on. The Mears Ltd info does not need to be put up, leave it to your discretion!

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