Questioning the Council
After the removal of signboards in Godalming and Farncombe, I decided to go along to the Waverley Council meeting and ask them to show their working.
The meeting was scheduled at 7pm on 17 February 2015, so I submitted a written question, I had missed the deadline for formal questions. Since informal questions were on a "first come, first served" basis, I arrived at about 6:10 and signed in. No-one else was about, so I used the time to refine my question.
My question was:
I am not a member of the People's NHS, but my question is about the removal of People's NHS placards. Matthew Evans is on record as saying that they are in breach of planning law, irrespective of the question of visual amenities. It seems clear to me that they satisfy all the conditions for deemed consent under paragraph 6 of section 2 of the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 2007, as a temporary political notice Class 3D as defined in schedule 3, part 1. What class of advertisement does the council believe that the placards fall under? And why does class 3D not apply?
You will notice that this requests two specific pieces of information - the class under which the advertisements fall, and the reasons why they don't fall under class 3D.
I note that several people from The People's NHS were at the meeting and recorded this exchange. You can see the video on Youtube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7eNjkj-ewg.
The council officer taking questions asked for a reply from Councillor Robert Knowles, leader of the council. He replied as follows - my thoughts are interleaved:
Thank you very much. That matter's quite technical but I'll answer to the best of my ability because this is not a matter under the control of members.
In anticipation of this problem, I had submitted essentially the same question (though slightly more general) about classification to the council, in advance, and also to my local councillor. The information I requested should have been very easily obtainable from the minutes of the meeting at which the decision was taken. If you decided a rule had been breached, which rule was it?
Note the "technical" aspect - it will become important again in a moment.
The advertisement control system for England consists of rules made by the secretary of state which is part of the planning control system. Waverley Borough Council, as a planning authority, is required to comply with all aspects of the Town and Country Planning Act. It is not a political matter or determined by elected members. The matter at hand is a clear one and is for officers who have a duty to respond in accordance with the law.
Indeed. This is, in fact, what I stated in my question.
The decision to remove the signs was made under the council scheme of delegation, where council officers respond to complaints from a number of residents who reported that advertising boards had appeared on their property without consent.
The matter of the very few boards mistakenly placed is not under dispute, and was not the subject of my question.
Following an investigation, planning enforcement officers found that a number of advertising boards placed in Godalming and Farncombe were in breach of the planning regulations, notably the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 2007, which have been in force since the 6th of April 2007.
This too is on record and is the reason why I am asking the question in the first place. The length of time that the rules have been in force is not relevant.
Irrespective of their contents, the boards were not only a breach of planning law, but also affected the visual amenities of the area.
So, the councillor admits that a decision was made that there was a breach of planning law. In my question, I asked that the visual amenities question be set aside, as it was not relevant to the matters of fact I wanted answering. Still, at least he was getting to the point, which is the reason for the refusal of deemed consent...
But, of course, he wasn't. That was it - just a straight assertion of the same statement that brought me here to ask for more detail. He then breezes past to conclude with:
The council therefore advised in writing to the occupiers of the properties in question, and a representative of the People's NHS, that unless the signs were removed the council would take action to remove them. The people's NHS have been informed when and how they can come and collect the signs.
Neither of these were relevant to the information I requested.
Although I was not again given permission to speak, I made it clear to both the mayor and Councillor Knowles that this was not a satisfactory answer to my question - in fact, not an answer at all.
So this was an initial disappointment.
Two additional public questions were then taken on matters relating to the development of the town centre.
Another councillor (possibly Councillor Bryn Morgan based on the councillor photos on their website) then stood and requested that as these questions were quite technical, that written replies should be made available. I would like to publicly thank him for attempting to obtain sensible answers for all of us. This request was acknowledged by the Mayor, who then said that only the second question warranted a written reply and that the other two questions had been adequately answered.
For the Mayor herself to deem this an appropriate answer to my question was, to be honest, quite breathtaking. I have not been too involved with local politics until recently, and I was expecting that questions posed would be taken seriously and answered.
I had expected little from the council, but I received less and was told it was enough.
Sorry, Waverley. Not even close.
[ARTICLE UPDATED 2015-02-18 with video link and transcript]