Sunday, 25 May 2008

In my Opinion ...

If you have not been following the story closely, this is the place to start...

Despite reference in the Report by the Head of Sustainable Development to "some local opposition", I truly believe there is a great deal more than just "some". It would, I think, be hard to find many in the local area who believe that our way of life would be enhanced by the extraction of 1.55 million tonnes of sand and gravel from the fields around our homes. This is my attempt to collect in one public place the facts and personal opinions of those most affected by the planning application to extract gravel from Stonehenge Farm.

I am not an expert, just someone who lives here, and I relish being part of a rural community. So often, it seems to me, decisions are made by those who live out of the immediate area. The very real issues which dominate our lives locally are issues with which we have to contend daily. The objections raised by local people in response to this application were raised because they truly exist.

We see with our own eyes, for example, the flooding which occurs after just a short period of heavy rainfall, not just in the winter, not just in one or two places near the rivers, but widespread throughout the local area. It is we who have to move our livestock or who have to turn back from our chosen route or footpath because the way is impassable owing to flood water. We are the ones who meet the heavy lorries on some of our narrow country roads. We wish to cycle to the village school, church & shop, to meet our local friends and use the Oxfordshire Cycleway and it is we who then have to cling to the verge to get out of the way when HGVs are coming towards us from both directions. It is our fields that resound with that "beep beep" noise as vehicles reverse and it is our landscape that is made hideous by this endless excavation.

On the morning of 21st May I went out with a couple of friends and our dogs to walk the public footpath leading down from the Standlake Road to the proposed gravel extraction area. Our walk coincided with the Councillor's site visit planned for that morning. We saw the coach, its windows with dark tinted glass, making its way down the track behind us. We stood back from the path to allow it to pass and walked on slowly behind it as it progressed to the proposed extraction site. There it stopped for a moment or two, turned round and retraced its route back past us to the road. If the councillors got out of the bus to examine the area under scrutiny, then we failed to see it.

I was one of the 70 or so local residents who went to the Planning Meeting on 21st May. We heard the petitions made on behalf of the Moreton residents, Northmoor Parish Council, OUTRAGE, West Oxfordshire District Council and our own local Councillor as well as the agent for the applicant, Hanson. David Cameron MP submitted a letter which was read out. There were statements from representatives for the Highways, the agent for the Harcourt Estate and the Planning Officer amongst others. We listened to the presentation made by the Minerals Officer. The councillors posed questions to all those who spoke out publicly and some made statements.

After 3 hours of presentations, questions and answers, I noted, as did others around me, that the councillors were asked to vote on what many of us believed was the motion before them. By a show of hands, it was defeated, 8 votes to 7. There was a stunned moment as the sudden realisation dawned - it seemed to me as though the motion had been defeated. There followed much indistinct mumbling and confusion at the Chairman's end of the table and a second motion was quickly put forward to defer a decision until the publication of WODC's Final Report on the 2007 Summer Flooding. Chaos broke out. There was a general outcry not only from a section of the public, unable to believe what they had just witnessed, but also from a number of the Councillors. To give you a flavour of the outburst that ensued:

"You can't do that."
"We have already voted."
"It makes us look so unprofessional."
"That's ridiculous. So our vote means nothing?"
"Do you want us to carry on on voting until we get it right?"
"The Chairman can do exactly what he likes."

This second motion was carried, 9-2 in favour of deferral until 21st July.

I, like a number around me, left the meeting in a state of shock at what seemed to me to be such a blatant miscarriage of democracy. It was the first OCC Planning meeting that I have ever attended and I did not come away impressed. This was a meeting of such enormous significance to those of us who live here and it was conducted in a way that was confusing not just to members of the general public but clearly also to some of the Councillors who are experienced in such matters.

What I witnessed that day first hand does not fill me with confidence in our system for democratic decision-making. I fear for the outcome on 21st July. I hope there will be a fair hearing for both sides. We realise that there is a need for gravel - but why should it all come from here?


graham said...

This is a great initiative and your description exactly matches my recollection of events. They were not a pretty sight and give no confidence in the rigour of the planning process in Oxfordshire. The councillors had what seemed to me to be a biased report in front on them in favour of the application and took no serious notice of the objections raised from the floor.

Emma at Stanton Harcourt said...

Posted on behalf of Mike Newman ...
As Mr. Mitchell has time to write letters to the Oxford Mail, I wonder if he has time to sort out his Mugabe style planning committee? On Monday this week they clearly showed, by the raising and counting of hands of committee members, that they had voted decisively against an application for another gravel pit, this time near Northmoor, much to the relief of the near 70 people in the audience. Immediately, having realised that they had allowed the wrong decision, they decided to delay the vote until the meeting on July 21st, when hopefully, for the few, they will get the vote 'right' next time. What a complete shambles! Maybe the Zimbabwean flag should fly over County Hall.

Mike Newman said...

I asked both the Leader of OCC and the CEO why the vote, by the Planning Committee, against the application was allowed to be overruled by some members of the same Planning Committee, Mugabe stlye. They both passed my email to OCC's solicitor and below is the reply from OCC's solicitor, received this afternoon.

The explanation, particularly paragraph 8 still appears to me to be Mugabe style and I have asked for further clarification.


Mike Newman
Dear Sir,

Would you kindly note that your e-mail to Joanna Simons, the Chief Executive and Cllr Mitchell Leader of the Council have both been passed to me for formal reply ( copies enclosed below).

I have discussed this matter with colleagues who attended the meeting and it appears to me that I should explain the actions taken by the Committee in light of your comments.

The officer recommendation in the report accompanying the agenda was to approve the application with conditions to be determined by the Head of Sustainable Development, subject to a legal agreement covering various matters and a routeing agreement.

The public addresses and subsequent debate on this application took approximately three hours.

In the light of the information about the WODC flooding report, the Chairman proposed that the Head of Sustainable Development be granted delegated authority to approve the application, after consulting with the Chairman, subject to the findings of the WODC flooding report (yet to be published) and the Environment Agency not changing its views in the light of that report; if the EA changed its views, then the application would come back before the committee for further consideration.

The motion was seconded by Councillor Reynolds, debated and was lost by 8 votes to 7.

There appeared to be some confusion following this as some members of the public who considered that the failure of the motion to approve, subject to various factors, implied that the application itself had been refused. This was not nor could have been the case.

The Legal advisor and Committee Clerk, quite rightly in my opinion, advised the Chairman that although the motion to approve, contingent as it was on various factors, had been lost, this could not be regarded as a deemed refusal of the application.

That being the case, the committee was back to where it started and the only proposal on the table was the recommendation on the agenda which no-one had moved.

The Council’s own Members’ Planning Code of Practice stipulates that where the officers’ recommendation is not accepted, equally robust planning reasons for the decision must be given at the meeting and minuted. Those reasons must be capable of being defended at any subsequent appeal.This advice was also given to the Chairman and members of the committee.

In the light of this, Councillor Seale moved that the consideration of the application be deferred in order to consider the WODC report on flooding and the subsequent Environment Agency advice – this motion was seconded by Councillor David Turner, debated and subsequently agreed by 9 votes to 2.

I do not therefore accept your interpretation of events nor your analysis of the situation.

I trust the above assists

Yours sincerely

Peter G Clark
County Solicitor and
Monitoring Officer
Legal and Democratic Services
Oxfordshire County Council
County Hall
New Road
Oxford OX1 1ND

Tel: 01865 815363
Fax: 01865 815447

Emma at Stanton Harcourt said...

Posted on behalf of Graham ...

Dear Mike and Emma

So, the committee voted not to approve the motion to approve, but this could not be regarded as a vote to refuse…… It seems you need a PhD in semantics to understand the workings of OCC and, in particular, its planning process. This does not appear to me to be good, clear governance from one of our most important county committees.

Emma at Stanton Harcourt said...

Posted on behalf of Philip Rogers ...

I too was present at the planning meeting and was appalled at the way it was conducted. Unfortunately I had to leave before the vote, which I understand was unusually conducted, to say the least.

Another point which seems to be completely overlooked is the so called restoration. At the moment this land is productive and gives employment. This will cease when gravel is extracted, and the land will never be productive again.
In all mineral and industrial developments in the past, little thought has been given to restoration (from the 18th century on), but eventually the land can no longer be tolerated in the condition it was left, and restoration at vast cost is carried out. You only have to look at the iron ore diggings at Corby and Scunthorpe, or the industrial areas and coal fields in South Wales, to see what has to be done.

We are being left with the field system but no land, only water. The talk of reed beds, as if they contribute to the wealth and employment of the country needs rigorous investigation if it is to be justified.

Today, when we need all the agricultural land to feed ourselves, to willfully destroy it, and leave it derelict seems perverse.

You may be interested that it is normal practice in mineral extraction internationally, to ring fence a proportion of the turnover from the mineral sales for restoration, thus avoiding the need for our children to pay for it.

I quite agree with your concerns about flooding, as we have a similar problem at Yelford.

Emma at Stanton Harcourt said...

Posted on behalf of Hugh ...

I have never attended a planning committee meeting before, but I was surprised by the apparent superficiality of the discussion. There seemed to be a view held by a few councillors that the local human interest was secondary to the national interest, and indeed even to the bird kingdom, which has been already well accommodated by old gravel workings, I should have thought.

Virtually no consideration was given to existing on-going problems relating to too much HGV traffic using local industrial sites and the Dix waste site. The narrow lanes thereabouts are wholly unsuited to this type of traffic so HGV’s should be substantially reduced and not be considered as being at an acceptable level and so not a problem worthy of close consideration. The idea that the gravel lorries would be monitored to ensure safety and to prevent irregular routeing is invalid as it is already well known that these vehicles are regularly flouting the existing arrangements by speeding excessively and travelling through local villages outside their mandate, and the traffic police are unlikely to be any more present to apply the law or the proposed conditions than they are currently.

There seemed to be little appreciation at all on the flooding risk and the effect on private water wells; there seemed to be an undue reliance on the approval of the Environmental Agency on these matters, but the EA’s primary objective is to meet governmental targets.

Neither did it appear that any benefit would accrue to the local people, who would suffer the consequences of the major disruption, nor did the local land owner appear to wish to take a long-term responsibility for the maintenance of the gravel pits.

Finally, despite a clear rejection of the application proposal by a one majority, a vote made without any conditions or reservations whatsover as to what was being voted upon, the chairman then rejected the first vote and replaced it by another more suited it seems to those councillors such as himself who were supportive of the application. It was a scene to behold the undemocratic principles being applied!

Emma at Stanton Harcourt said...

Posted on behalf of Peter from Standlake ...

Hugh - I was present at the meeting and in order to avoid any doubt I wish to confirm that my perception was the same as yours, and many other people,that the first motion related to that on the Agenda without any additions and that it was rejected on a vote of eight against/seven in favour.