Dear Mr Neal
Thank you for your prompt response to my email of 3rd October 2018.
I note that you now describe the Penrith Strategic Masterplan Consultation as ‘having no legal status and an eight week public engagement process to garner the public’s views about proposals contained within it’. For myself it that a rather exact definition of a Public Consultation!
I note that in answers to questions from the Public, I presume prepared and reviewed by the Monitoring Officer, that the Consultation is variously described as ‘ an engagement process by which we are seeking the public’s views’ and ‘as an initial engagement process to show the general public what the Council’s Masterplan looks like’. I also note that on page 16 of the main Masterplan Document the following is stated: ‘ You will find details of Consultation Events on our website..’.
Do you take the public of Eden District as fools? If it walks like a duck, flys like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck! In this case, you even tell us it is a duck!
This might sound like a joke, but it is anything but a joke. This is potentially the most important thing to happen to this District since the arrival of the Railway in 1846 or the M6 fifty years ago.
I would therefore like to note the following. There is a specific duty on the Monitoring Officer to write a report on breaches of the law. I take it from your response that you have not done so, despite being in possession of a Legal Opinion from an Eminent Planning Barrister, Zack Simons, that the Masterplan ‘falls woefully short of the requirements of a valid consultation process and that the surrounding documentation and – in particular- the online questionnaire imply that other options have now been ruled out of account without consultation, and that the principle of development in this broad location has already been decided’. Mr Simons also gives his Opinion in para 14, that ‘ the claimed ‘informality’ is not relevant. Once a public body decides to embark on a consultation exchange, it is bound by the strict legal requirements I refer to above. Those requirements derive from the fundamental tenets of procedural fairness. They cannot be softened or circumvented only after a consultation has been launched by describing that exercise as ‘informal’. Yet of course, that is exactly what Eden District Council are doing. Any fair minded person would agree that the Deputy Chief Executive and Monitoring Officer cannot mark his own homework and that person is duty bound to get an suitably qualified planning barrister to give his opinion on what Mr Simons says.
I asked if such an Opinion had been sought. It is quite plain it hasn’t, or it’s contents were troubling, and people will draw their own conclusion as to why no such Opinion has been sought.
I also note the specific duty of the Monitoring Officer to maintain the highest standards of conduct in all they do. I note para 2 of the Officers’ code of conduct that ‘open government is best’ and that there is a statutory, and I presume implied non statutory, responsibility to make sure that information is available to the public and that Council Members are required to be ‘as open as possible about…decisions and actions’ and that the Monitoring Officer is required to hold Members to account in that regard.
I therefore find it quite astonishing that the intention of Eden District Council to apply for Garden Village money from Homes England was not disclosed at all anywhere in the Consultation documents. It is quite clear from what was said at the Executive Committee meeting on 2 October 2018 that the Executive, and presumably Officers, have had meetings with Homes England regarding an application and that they knew that an application had to be made by early November 2018 and this was known well before the Consultation was published on 10th September 2018. Despite that no disclosure was made in the Consultation Documents.
Moreover, it is quite clear that the Consultation was supposed to evidence the support of the public of the District for such an application. It is also clear that the survey monkey questionnaire was either deliberately designed to give the impression of support for Option 4 by the way answers would be given, even if not designed deliberately to do so, it would still have that result. As Mr Simons says in his Opinion ‘the questionnaire does not…present the issues in a ‘balanced way’… in particular … the vast majority of options for members of the public to pick between are obviously supportive of a very significant housing growth in broadly the locations outlined in Option 4. Members of the public are not asked any questions on the comparative merits or demerits of the other options’. He goes on to point out that ‘ each of the questions assumes that a very substantial development to the North East of Penrith will take place, and consultees are not asked for their views on the merits or demerits, or on the principle of development ( as opposed to its broad location) and that the phrasing implies what is sought is public support in order to facilitate the delivery of Option 4.’
This is not theoretical. It is clear that Members of the public have been or feel that have been misled and misrepresented as a result of the design of this questionnaire. I was sent an email yesterday by Dr Susan J Davies:
‘And I have to say, 1. I thought it was a consultation, from their publicity 2. I didn’t realise there was a real option to say I didn’t want any development at all, that certainly wasn’t clear, so all the feedback I prepared was aimed at saying I wanted less development, to try and minimise the damage, rather than none, which is what I really want.’
Given this, I want to ask if Eden District Council are prepared to give a written undertaking that they will not seek to use any data from the survey monkey questionnaire in support of any application for Garden Village money from the Government/ Homes England?
For obvious reasons I would ask you to confirm the position of Eden District Council on the question of its preparedness to give such a undertaking as a matter of urgency.
I have copied in the Herald and will post this email on our website www.keeppenrithspecial.org on Saturday 6th October 2018.