Will a council’s constitution lead to more public protests?

Was the protest against a development at a beloved woodland the first of many?

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By Sarah Ward

Almost 300 people of all ages crammed into the car park outside the North Northamptonshire Council offices in Kettering recently to protest against a planning application to build a warehouse on the town’s beloved Weekly Hall Woods.

The chairman of the planning meeting was at times drowned out by the chants from the crowds outside, assisted by the car top megaphone rousing of Green party councillor Dez Dell.

A popular community movement, many had come out to support campaign group Save Weekly Hall Woods, but the organisers were themselves surprised by the turnout of the vocal placard-waving supporters. They think the large numbers were in part due to the council allowing only one member of the public to speak at the meeting against the plans.

Planning matters

Under its newly adopted constitution a planning committee meeting only has to allow one public speaker who is against the matter being decided upon. The rules do state however that the chairman has the power to overrule this if there is significant demand from the public. 

“Where there is significant demand for public speaking on a proposal more than one speaker for and against the proposal may be permitted, but this will only be at the discretion of the Committee Chair.”

However, despite requests from a few people to speak, and a written plea from the leader of the Kettering Green Alliance - made up of four green unitary councillors and an independent - Conservative chairman Cllr Mark Rowley decided to only allow one speaker, Jamie Wildman, who made a passionate speech, about conservation.

But to the dismay of those inside and outside the venue, Cllr Rowley attempted to stop Jamie as soon as he had reached his three minute time limit, banging the gavel and threatening to suspend the meeting when Jamie tried to finish his speech. In the end the decision was deferred and will come back to the council again for a second hearing with additional reports.

The constitution

Under its constitution the rules state that people have to apply to the council’s democratic services in writing to speak before midday of the day before the meeting. Allocation is made on a first come first served basis, with one third party speaker allowed for the proposal and one against. Other speakers allowed are a parish or town councillor, a councillor who represents the area, the applicant and the planning officer.

Under its ‘right to speak procedure rules’ the authority asks all people who have registered to speak against an application if it can forward their details onto the other objectors so they can decide among themselves who speaks.

Member of Save Weekly Hall Woods Frankie O’Dowd, was the first registered speaker but after being unwilling to have her details shared to other unknown objectors (as suggested by the democratic services team) for privacy and GDPR reasons, she yielded the speakers position to Jamie Wildman, who the authority had wrongly told her was speaking as a member of the Save Weekly Hall Woods group. He wasn’t - a wrongful assumption made by the council. The error was realised before the meeting, but when challenged the chair decided against allowing both Frankie and Jamie to speak.

Frankie now has a formal complaint about what happened and says she is willing to take the matter forward to the Local Government Ombudsman if it is not resolved satisfactorily.

She said:

“It strikes me as being remarkably undemocratic. Giving one person out of the community three minutes to speak does not seem democratic to me.

“Surely the simplest thing is that if something is controversial then more people should be allowed to speak.”

Leader of the Green Alliance Emily Fedorowycz has called the way the authority is handling the matter ‘suspicious’ and as a member of the democracy and standards committee, will be bringing up the issue of taking another look at the constitution. (At the first full council meeting of the authority its monitoring officer Adele Wylie said in her report about the constitution that it had been developed over a relatively short period and would need a further review.)

Cllr Fedorowycz says her emails to Cllr Rowley were not even responded to.

“It doesn’t make sense why more speakers were not allowed as the constitution says the chairman has discretion to allow more.”

She said rather than just giving the chairman discretion, the constitution should be more prescriptive and transparent.

This application was not the main application being put forward for the meadow which sits behind Northants Police northern control hub in Kettering.

This application for one warehouse by car parts maker IM Kelly, is much smaller than the five warehouse development being put forward by Buccleuch Estates, which owns the land.

The meadow has long been used by Kettering residents to walk and enjoy nature and became a mental health tonic and leisure escape to many during the first coronavirus lockdown. 

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