A return to this folly would be very foolish

Wentworth Street Car Park will remain a car park for the time being.
Wentworth Street Car Park will remain a car park for the time being.

As you have no doubt read in the news pages, the judicial review outcome was a comprehensive denunciation of Ryedale District Council’s decision to grant itself planning permission to enter into a deal with a developer (GMI Holbeck) to build a supermarket on Wentworth Street car park.

Four of the five grounds on which it was alleged that the decision was unlawful were upheld; only one was needed for the decision to be overruled. Costs were awarded, yet again, against the council.

I have read Mr Justice Dove’s arguments, conclusions and judgement and you might like to do the same, although I warn you that it is not an easy read, filled as it is with legalisms and unfamiliar acronyms, but it is damning. Apart from rehearsing and analysing legal precedents, much of the focus is on the planning officer’s report to the planning committee recommending the second grant of approval for the superstore on the car park, which was duly given. The report, together with supporting documentation, was circulated prior to the planning meeting; not included was the Inspector’s Report in which the first grant of approval was overturned. That was given to members at the meeting itself. This, of course, is an old dodge. As the judge indicates, this is an important document that carries great weight.

The inspector’s report is, however, referred to in the planning officer’s report. Of this the judge writes: “I am satisfied that the officer’s report did mislead members, and mislead them significantly, as to the findings of the inspector………” and, later, “As a result of the approach of the officer’s report and the absence of analysing the impacts on the livestock market scheme, the conclusions which they reached in relation to the planned investment were inchoate”. A fine word, inchoate. Other important aspects of the inspector’s report were simply not referred to. This is a broad enough skirt behind which members can hide, as I suspect they will.

Where does that leave us? The developer has applied for leave to appeal, so the saga may continue for some time yet, but I doubt that leave will be granted, so comprehensively was the council criticised by the High Court judge. I am hopeful that the car park will remain just that for many years, for two reasons: the proposed addition of large numbers of houses in Malton and Norton will bring with it increased demand for parking, and the requirements of major local events, the weekend food events, the Ryedale Book Festival, cycling competitions and other projects in the planning stages will see a growing need for special event parking capacity.

In the meantime, there will be a legacy of bitterness left by this sorry situation that will be very difficult to overcome, but that is for the future. What has been exposed by Mr Justice Dove is at best gross incompetence, at worst something else altogether. It is not in the nature of public sector institutions to clean the stables. We, the tax payers who will have to underwrite the many hundreds of thousands of pounds of unnecessary legal costs, have not been treated straightforwardly; the smiling assurances that the £5 million was “never the issue” and that there was no operation of a party whip were not honest and known not to be honest when they were given.

I predict that we shall see finger pointing within the council, with councillors blaming officers and vice versa, and high level claims of ethical purity. No-one comes out of this well, but if I were a senior council officer I would be reaching for a lawyer and trying to get my union representative to take an interest. For them, careers are in jeopardy; for members of the council only loss of low grade political position, and not even that, for four years.

I have said that I am hopeful that the car park will remain a car park, but I am not optimistic. The Yorkshire Post of Saturday July 11 (two days after the court ruling) carried the story under the headline “Judge puts block on village’s store plan”. (Village?)

In that report Ryedale District Council leader Linda Cowling is quoted as saying: (this ruling) “enables the application to be reconsidered by the planning committee at a later date”.

I assume that this means that a third attempt will be made to give itself permission to do what it wants, that is a bit of nifty asset stripping. I am reminded of the Old Testament (Proverbs 26:11): “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly”. Indeed.