Saturday, November 22, 2008

Council green spaces policy to classify land not needed - senior council officers on the council have done it for us!

The latest on my complaint to Bristol City Council about them not following their own policy on green spaces. My response to each point from Council Complaints Manager Tim Sheppard is in blue:

Dear Mr Vowles

David and I have now discussed this matter and for information, I have described below the Council's position.

Tim, the word you used in your email to me was that you would ‘investigate’ the matter (ie David Bishop's decisions in this instance). ‘Investigate’ means to search and examine – have you done any searching and examining outside of the discussion with senior officer David Bishop you refer to??

You will be aware that this development offers an opportunity for an innovative exercise in linking cycle houses with the Bristol to Bath cycle path. Difficulties initially emerged as the strip of land in question has some ecological merit. This prompted George Ferguson to contact David Bishop to discuss the merits of the scheme and ask him to examine the council's initial position on the sale of this stretch of land.

With respect, the merits or not of the proposed cycle houses is not the issue since the development that features them could easily go ahead without destroying the hedgerow and being built up close to the cycle path. It just needs shifting a short distance back from the path and a little redesign and/or scaling back as appropriate.

Interesting that officers within the council advised that the land has ecological merit, which is my view, whereas in a recent Bristol Evening Post story George Ferguson called it ‘pointless scrubland’. Interesting that George Ferguson a) gets to know of the view formed and advice then given within the council on land he has a significant interest in and b) easily and promptly has access to a senior council officer who has significant powers to make key decisions c) obviously has had considerable influence on decisions made given that ‘difficulties that initially emerged’ before contact are not difficulties after. How much did the public know, especially in the local area, and how much access to senior council officers could they easily get? How much influence on David Bishop would they have had? Council policy, the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy says about land value, on page 36,

"...value will, therefore, be assessed at the stage when Area Green Space Plans are being drawn up and sites are being identified as possible candidates for change of use/type of green space or disposal".

Clearly in this case this has not happened. The complex issue of total land value has been decided by senior officer David Bishop and a few other officers, following an intervention by the highly influential George Ferguson.

Given that the Council was on the cusp of becoming the first Cycle City, a proposition that used a small piece of the Council's land to enable such an innovative idea - almost a cycling service station on a flagship cycle route (notwithstanding the fact that planning permission still needed to be obtained and no-one could make any presumptions about that) - was very attractive. If such an idea came to fruition, Bristol would enhance its cycling/green capital reputation still further, and more people would be attracted to cycle and walk along the path in future. Bristol's residents would get healthier as a result and any traffic modal shift would make a contribution to reduced congestion and enhanced air quality, all aims the Council is vigorously pursuing.

Please see my previous comments about the merits or not of the proposed cycle houses not being the issue. There are many ifs in this third pragraph that I’d like to point out though: if Bristol became the first Cycle City (the decision had not then been made in Bristol’s favour); if any development successfully went through the planning process (official plans were not submitted at this time and so there was no public consultation on official plans); if the cycle houses enhance city cycling/green capital reputation significantly; if traffic modal shift is significant…

Promises are not a firm basis for a major decision that goes against advice and does not involve consultation with the public, stakeholder groups nor, so far as I know, elected councillors. The paragraph sounds to me more like someone’s sales pitch, based on imagery and inflated potential impacts, rather than solid ideas based on evidence.

There is more to a piece of land than its size, though we are talking about well over 100 metres of mature hawthorn hedgerow which officers judged to have ecological merit. Quality, value and significance of land are not a matter that can finally be decided completely objectively or should be decided by a small number of people – the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy acknowledges this and outlines a procedure (the drawing up, by agreement in localities, of Area Green Space Plans). My complaint also raised the issue of plans not being accompanied by an Environmental Impact Assessment - responses from you have not explained the council decision that an EIA was not needed. Is it the case that an EIA was deemed unnecessary just on the basis of the size of the land involved??

Bristol City Councils green capital reputation depends in part on the quality of and implementation of its policy on green spaces.
No doubt the city’s application to become the European Green Capital includes outlining the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy. However, the procedures it outlines clearly have not been applied.

A discussion about the proposed land sale and the questions that it raised, was had with Transport, Property and senior Culture & Leisure Services staff, which included the relative merits of cycle houses versus negative localised ecological impact. It was felt that because the eventual development control process could ensure that ecological mitigation measures were secured, on balance we should support the principle of the land sale, subject of course to the development progressing.

The fourth paragraph raises more questions than it answers. Just one discussion? Seems a cursory treatment to me. What laid down, publicly available criteria were used to judge the relative merits, so that accountability for decisions is built in? How does one objectively weigh up very different types of benefits/costs? Cycle house benefits are only promised whereas ecological loss due to habitat destruction is relatively easily established – was this accounted for? Were any elected representatives involved at any point? Were any stakeholders involved? Were the public involved? What reference was made to the letter and spirit of council green spaces policy and the principles and procedures it outlines? Was the option of promptly getting an Area Green Space Plan put in place for this land ever discussed? How/where does accountability come into play??

No ecological mitigation measure details were then available and so assessing the quality and potential success rate of these was not possible. In any case there is a serious debate about whether mitigation measures are often just a sop to developers, allowing their plans to proceed by requiring environmental action sufficient to appear to be full compensation when in fact it most often falls short.

Property Services staff were advised to progress their discussions with the developer accordingly, which we believe will have given them the necessary confidence to progress their scheme to the next stage, albeit of course the land sale will not be finalised until much later, if planning permission is secured and the development progresses.

The decision that the benefits of ‘cycle houses’ outweighs ecological losses and that therefore selling the land is ok in principle, is a big decision in favour of the plans now submitted. This decision by senior and powerful council figures puts massive pressure on any officers and councillors involved in processing the plans and making decision on them. The pressure is clearly favouring the granting of planning permission because if it was refused then all those supposed net benefits that some are convinced of are lost.

These sorts of balanced considerations, and resultant decision making, are the day to day function of senior managers such as David and I am satisfied that no policies or advice has been ignored or over ruled nor was it a hasty decision. I am also satisfied that the necessary checks and balances are in place to ensure the public have an opportunity to express their views.

Sorry but how do you expect me to be satisfied with your conclusion? If there were straightforward answers to my complaint why were they not made available within the initial 15 working day deadline? Two months have passed now since I complained. The appearance, at least, of the situation is that its taken the council all this time to agree a line of argument!!

It may well be that this sort of decision is within the remit of senior officers like David Bishop, though I will ensure that I ask he Ombudsman to look into this to check.

I see
little or no evidence that the procedures outlined in the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy have been followed – perhaps you can provide it for me??

Clearly the weight of initial officer advice about the ecological value of the land has not counted for much compared with David Bishops view after the intervention of George Ferguson followed by discussions you outline. The
key decisions on land selling appear to have been made within a timescale of less than two weeks - very short compared with the two months its taken for the council to reply to basic questions from me! It appears, at least, that Mr Ferguson's intervention speeded along the decision nicely.

You’ve still not provided me with any reference to documents showing arrangements/criteria used for making judgements if policies conflict (not that they should). Likewise you’ve not outlined any interim arrangements that were prepared in order to allow sufficient time for Area Green Space Plans to be put into place. Are there or have there been meetings since my complaint to outline criteria I refer to or to make interim arrangements? In short, how is the council building in accountability and participation of some sort? Does the council admit that David Bishop and other should have consulted more widely eg via stakeholders before deciding that a land sale was on and that further discussin with a buyer could proceed?

At present it seem perfectly clear that development pressures will most often win against the need to protect and conserve green spaces – I had this made pretty clear when attending recent initial meetings on establishing the Area Green Space Plan for Knowle, Filwood and Windmill Hill (discussion of Filwood’s green spaces was ruled out by officers running the meeting, who explained that this was because big ‘regeneration’ plans were due to be finalized in the coming months and they did not know what the ward might look like should plans go ahead!)

I believe this now brings all these matters to a close. Should you wish, you can now add this to your complaint to the Ombudsman.

I felt it was worth replying to this latest message even though your closing sentences sound very much like you want no further communication with me. Should I send off details of my complaint to the Ombudsman I believe your message and my reply will be valuable to them as a summary of some key issues. However, I’ve still not sent anything yet, in part because further freedom of information requests may help to clarify the situation and I am still hoping to be able to meet with David Bishop and Steven McNamara face to face and have copied them in to this reply so that it doubles as a request for a meeting. I’m not hopeful that they will agree to meet with me as I think they most probably view me as a stirrer and trouble-maker rather than the truth (someone who initially just asked a few questions and felt compelled to follow up from there because of lack of answers).