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..