Stephen Irvine, Head of Planning and Infrastructure at Oldham Metropolitan Borough, has been suspended from the council. According to Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Mr Irvine has been suspended from his duties whilst allegations of "gross misconduct" are investigated.
While the nature of these allegations and what they relate to are yet to be revealed the news does not come as a surprise to Save Royton's Green Belt. We have been actively engaged with OMBC since the consultation closed and have grave concerns regarding the site selection process, finding the Council uncooperative:
Under the Freedom of Information Act we requested the minutes to Council meetings that discussed site selection but were informed that no minutes existed. We were informed that site selection was the result of "informal meetings" and no formal meetings were held.
Under the Freedom of Information Act we requested copies of the working papers produced/used by the site selection process, and a copy of any electronic communication regarding site selection. OMBC refused our request.
If site selection had been undertaken with full compliance with the law and national policy would this information be withheld from us? The lack of transparency suggests that OMBC have something to hide.
We have also since discovered, that according to Oldham's Monitoring Report (p. 64), the following indicators are no longer monitored by OMBC:
Windfall completions (i.e. houses built that were not factored into the Council's projections)
Public transport accessibility of new residential developments to key services
Net change in open space
Number of Air Quality Management Areas
Number of quality bus corridors
Number of potentially contaminated sites
Number of applications related to contaminated sites
Extent of underused and derelict land
Previously developed land that has been vacant or derelict for over 5 years
Number of Local Nature Reserves and Country Parks
We consider this information to be essential to safe and sustainable development, and any development process that does not take these crucial factors into account is unsound, and potentially negligent.
Our concerns regarding the integrity and competence of OMBC's Planning department extend beyond the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework. On 1st July 2019, the Council granted planning permission on protected open land at Knowls Lane in Saddleworth & Lees for 265 homes, in a council meeting that can only be described as shambolic:
The National Planning Policy Framework (para. 97) mandates the following:
97. Existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless:
(a) an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown the open space, buildings or land to be surplus to requirements; or
(b) the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location; or
(c) the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the benefits of which clearly outweigh the loss of the current or former use.
It is not obvious to us how the Council meeting fulfilled the requirements of national policy. If an assessment had been undertaken this was not divulged to the Planning Committee, nor did the meeting discuss alternative provision as required by the NPPF. We are of the opinion that the councillors at the meeting were not party to all the facts pertaining to the OPOL status of the land.
Given the council's failure to maintain minutes for the site selection meetings (meaning it is not possible to ensure due process was observed), the lack of transparency, the failure to monitor vital indicators, the failings of the planning decision in regards to Knowls Lane, and now the suspension of Mr Irvine, Save Royton's Green Belt calls for an independent public review of the site selection process undertaken by OMBC for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.