Farnborough town centre is owned lock stock and barrel by Kuwaiti-financed property company KPI. They have owned the town centre for well over 5 years, and in that time laid waste to the town centre, reducing it to a ghost town. Two ugly blocks have been erected, one with 28 squatly flats above shops. The units have only been filled by moving around the few remaining retailers in the town, at least one set of units was let at peppercorn rents as the only way of filling them. KPI now wish to demolish the northern half of the town centre, plus a group of 28 maisonettes to make way for a car park for a superstore. Outline planing was granted for this a couple of years ago, but Rushmoor were forced to reconsider the application by means of a Judicial Review.
Rushmoor planning committee were told, the application, which was back before them, was back due to a High Court ruling. The judge had given leave for a judicial review on planning consent previously unlawfully granted by the chairman and head of planning granting outline planning permission in secret behind closed doors. The council were given a choice: either quash the planning consent and start again or be subject to a judicial review of their previous decision. The judge made it clear he did not wish to see them back before him. Following a great deal of bravado where Rushmoor claimed they had won the case, they humiliatingly bowed to the inevitable and quashed the previously granted consent.
Prior to the meeting, Rushmoor received a letter from Richard Button solicitors. This forced the planning officials to modify their recommendations. The letter was not circulated. A summary of the key points of the letter was flashed on a screen. The summary was not circulated.
It was claimed a satisfactory retail impact assessment had been carried out. No details were provided, not even a one page summary. The survey, I learnt after the meeting, was carried out by KPI (the developer) or their agents.
It was claimed by at least two councillors, including Paul Taylor and Roland Dibbs, that at least 99.5% of Farnborough residents wanted the redevelopment, and it was strongly implied, but not stated, that it was only a handful of troublemakers who were holding up the redevelopment, ie destruction, of Farnborough town centre. They had made similar statements in a Tory pre-election leaflet, prejuducng their opinions at the committee.
I am told Pat Devereux, committee vice-chairman, had put out a similar Tory pre-election leaflet, welcoming the town centre redevelopment. I accept my comments are hearsay, but if such a leaflet was circulated, then Pat Devereux prejudiced her position on the committee and should have left the room. No interest was declared. She spoke in favour of the application and voted for the application.
From conversation with local residents and the few remaining retailers, there is strong local opposition to the proposed the town centre redevelopment, but following several years of laying waste to the town centre by the developers, it is recognised that some form of redevelopmentt is now desperately needed, although whether it will bring back to the town shoppers and retailers remains to be seen.
It was claimed that the the human rights of the residents of Firgrove Court were not affected, those whose home are earmarked for demolition for a supermarket. At no time were the human right affected explicitly mentioned nor how they were to be addressed. Two councillors, Roland Dibbs and Neville Dewey dismissed the human rights issue as 'a red herring', the sole discussion of human rights.
Firgrove Court tenants are not the only ones at risk of losing their homes. Tenants who live in the flats above the shops due for demolition are also at risk of being made homeless. They did not even merit a mention, let alone their human rights be discussed.
It was admitted that the percentage of 'affordable housing' was not being met, but this was a case of juggling the figures. One councillor said this was okay as it was very expensive real estate.
At the beginning of the meeting, three councillors declared they had a vested interest through their links with Pavilion, but did not state what these links were. All three, Sue Dibble, Charlie Fraser-Fleming and Roger Kimber, are board members of Pavilion! Pavilion is the Housing Association which owns Firgrove Court and is selling the land to KPI and doing KPI's dirty work for them by kicking out their tenants. Not a single councillor left the room. All three voted in favour of the redevelopment, at least two spoke in favour of the redevelopment.
When it was suggested that some of the Firgrove tenants could be made homeless, Pavilion board member Sue Dibble viciously denounced such a suggestion, stating it would make a bad headline in the local press.
Some of the Firgrove tenants are 'secure' tenants, thus have minimal level of security. Others have no security at all. These latter tenants were some time ago given Notice to Quit.
Chairman Eddie Poole was unfit to chair the meeting due to past vicious attacks he has made on objectors in the local press. He did not leave the room. He spoke in favour of the redevelopment saying he wanted it to go ahead as soon as possible. He voted for the KPI plans.
The redevelopment includes leisure facilities. As a local taxi driver, Poole is a direct financial beneficiary were the redevelopment to go ahead. Poole did not declare this interest, nor that he is already under investigation by the Standards Board for England for England for his previous crass comments.
Another councillor, Paul Taylor, declared an interest. Although he did not declare all his interests: manages a shop in the town centre, trustee of same shop, KPI tenant. He did not leave the room. He spoke in favour of the town centre redevelopment and voted for it.
Paul Taylor made the point he would at some point like to see evidence of consultation. It was admitted that no consultation had taken place for this resubmitted application. The public are of the view that no consultation has ever taken place.
My own detailed opposition to these plans was mentioned and summarized in a single paragraph of a handful of lines.
The committee voted in favour of the application with one abstention.
Following the letter from Richard Buxton solicitors, Rushmoor were forced to hastily re-write their resolution. A Section 106 planning agreement is be drawn up which prevents the demolition of Firgrove Court unless alternative accommodation is offered. But the wording is so weak, that it affords little protection to the Firgrove tenants.
The modified resolution was placed before the committee that evening. No one had had the opportunity to see it before or comment on it.
No similar protection is on offer for the tenants in the flats above the shops or for the few remaining retailers.
KPI in the meantime have submitted a completely new application, which makes the entire exercise somewhat pointless.
There are expected to be further legal challenges.
For the last five years, Rushmoor councillors have stood idly by as KPI have laid waste to the town centre. Wednesday night they gave that destruction their official blessing.
Rushmoor must be one of the few councils that presides over the destruction of its own town centre.
Apart from the developers and the local press, I was the only one who troubled to attend the committee. One reason why councillors get away with so much. No one demands accountability. And this a mere eight days before local elections.
A report is to be filed with the Standards Board for England seeking immediate suspension of all councillors who pushed through this planning application even though they had vested interests and/or had prejudiced the application by their previous comments or like the chairman with his vicious attack on objectors demonstrated himself to be unfit to be on the committee. The report calls for the immediate suspension of named councillors pending a detailed investigation.
Committee chairman Eddie Poole is a candidate in the forthcoming local elections (10 June 2004). Described by a local Tory as a 'loose cannon' and following his crass comments in the local press, Poole was deselected from a safe Tory seat which he has held for many years. Poole was offered a safe Labour seat! One of the candidates in the seat, and likely to win, is local campaigner Peter Sandy, who has done much to highlight the ill treatment of Pavilion tenants and lack of repairs. Poole seems to be ever more desperate. He has put out a leaflet describing Peter Sandy as a 'bully boy', for acting for tenants against Pavilion. A formal complaint has already been lodged with the Returning Officer. It will be poetic justice if Peter Sandy wins the seat and Poole comes a poor third. Already under pressure from regulators, Pavilion chief executive Mervyn Jones is expected to resign should Peter Sandy be elected.
The chairing of the committee by Poole left much to be desired. During the discussion of an application to erect a mobile phone mast, he tried to silence a councillor who was attempting to cite government guidance that would have strengthened the case to reject the application. On another item on the agenda, he told the committee how to vote and called for a vote to be taken before there had been any discussion.
A few weeks before the planning committee met, KPI were forced into a humiliating out-of-court settlement. KPI were forced to pay compensation and cover all legal costs for the nuisance and aggravation they had caused during their construction of new retail units on the old Post Office site. They were also forced to recognise the rights of a residential tenant, that until then, they had refused to recognise. Rushmoor turned a convenient blind eye to the number of planning infringements that took place during construction, many of which took place daily. No enforcement action was ever taken, or even contemplated, by Rushmoor.
Farnborough town centre, BVEJ newsletter, January 2004
Keith Parkins, Town & Out II, Corporate Watch, 14 January 2004
Simon Coughlin, Delays annoy councillors, Farnborough News, 6 February 2004
Simon Coughlin, Town plans forced back, Farnborough News, 20 February 2004
Council wins court case on Farnborough town centre, press release, Rushmoor Borough Council, 17 February 2004
Keith Parkins, Trashing of Farnborough Town Centre, Indymedia UK, 11 November 2002
Keith Parkins, Trashing of Farnborough Town Centre, Indymedia UK, 14 November 2002
Keith Parkins, Farnborough didn't need KPI scheme, letters, Farnborough News, 5 September 2003
Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre, Indymedia UK, 8 September 2003
Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre – compulsory purchase orders, 16 October 2003
Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre judicial review, press release, 18 February 2004
Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre judicial review, Indymedia UK, 18 February 2004
Keith Parkins, Objectors should be listened to, letters, Farnborough News, 20 February 2004