Serious doubts have been expressed over the fairness – or lack of it – of Sutton Council’s planning process for the Beddington Lane incinerator, after a former councillor and member of the committee that granted permission for the waste incineration plant claimed that he was “coerced” into voting in favour of the scheme.
The admission could lead to Sutton Council being subject to a charge of maladministration over the granting of planning permission for an industrial waste incineration plant to be built on the borough boundary with Croydon.
Last week, a current Sutton councillor, Nick Mattey, was suspended by the council’s ruling Liberal Democrats after he circulated strong criticism of the incinerator scheme and revealed that contractors, Viridor, had made a gift of £275,000 to a church in Wallington which has strong links to his party, including the Carshalton and Wallington parliamentary candidate, Tom Brake.
Mattey’s critique included questioning the “probity” of the planning process, and his comments have drawn support from a former Sutton councillor.
Sutton’s development control committee met twice in 2013 to decide on the incinerator proposal, brought by Viridor, which has a 25-year, £1 billion contract with the South London Waste Partnership, which comprises of four London boroughs – Croydon, Sutton, Merton and Kingston.
At the first planning committee meeting, staged on April 24, 2013, the scheme failed to achieve a majority in favour, with three councillors from the governing LibDem group voting for and two Conservatives, plus Stephen Fenwick, the LibDem councillor for Worcester Park ward, voting against.
When the committee was hurriedly reconvened less than a month later, Fenwick opted to vote for the scheme, along party lines, as did Monica Coleman and Margaret Court, LibDem councillors who had been so bold as to abstain at the previous meeting.
No satisfactory explanation has ever been offered over what changed the three LibDem councillors’ minds on the issue, until now.
In 2014, Fenwick lost his position as a councillor following a drink-fuelled rant in a Charing Cross pub that January, which saw him charged with racially aggravated assault, for which he was given a conditional discharge and a fine. He resigned as a councillor and did not stand in last May’s local elections.
Given the events of 2014, Fenwick’s testimony regarding the 2013 planning meetings may be subject to attempts to discredit him further by his former party colleagues.
Nonetheless, given the strict rules on planning issues which local authorities must follow, his comments will provide serious cause for concern for Sutton’s council leader, Ruth Dombey, and her party colleagues.
Writing about his change of vote at the second planning meeting, Fenwick said, “I was coerced into doing so by certain members of the group.”
According to the quango Planning Advisory Service and the Local Government Association, “Planning decisions cannot be made on a party political basis in response to lobbying; the use of political whips to seek to influence the outcome of a planning application is likely to be regarded as maladministration.”
Further, the PAS and LGA document on Probity in Planning for councillors and officers states: “Members of a planning committee, Local Plan steering group (or full Council when the local plan is being considered) need to avoid any appearance of bias or of having predetermined their views before taking a decision on a planning application or on planning policies.”
Reports from the Sutton planning meeting – including the council’s own audio recording of the proceedings – have provided further indications that a council officer was seeking to influence the committee chairman.
“Although I voted for the incinerator at the second development control committee, I still had some issues with the environmental impact the incinerator would cause,” Fenwick said last week.
In a long and sometimes rambling comment posted on the Sutton Guardian‘s website, Fenwick makes a series of allegations against his former party colleagues, and suggests that pressure was also applied to him over his 2014 court case.
Expressing his view on the suspension of Councillor Mattey from the LibDem group, Fenwick said, “The problem that Councillor Dombey and her hierarchy have is that they cannot take criticism or effectively handle issues without burying their heads in the sand to protect the supremacy and power of the LibDems and the borough’s two MPs.”
Fenwick signed off by asking: “How long will it be before Sutton is twinned with Pyongyang?”
The positions of Fenwick and Mattey drew support from another former Sutton LibDem councillor, John Keys.
Keys was a Beddington North councillor who quit the LibDems to join Labour in order to oppose the incinerator scheme. “I have a very good idea what Nick is going through,” Keys said. “We have seen from their behaviour in bullying a blind lady and we still haven’t had an apology for this.
“I thought I was the only one with principles to make a stand against the LibDems, so I say well done to you, Nick.”
- Tom Brake link to church donation from incinerator company
- Dear LibDems: I remain a liberal, a democrat and a councillor
- The brave letter that got Sutton councillor suspended
- Nick Clegg feels the heat from anti-incinerator protesters
- Check out our archive on the Viridor incinerator here
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