Whittlesey Supermarket Wars – The Alan Melton Interview

07:40 Friday 12th October 2012
Bigger Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: “I want to clear out any mischief makers“, were the words of Fenland Council Leader Alan Melton, after sacking all 14 of his Planning Committee. It’s a turn of events that one local newspaper has dubbed SupermarketGate. Planners at Fenland District Council surprised many recently by conducting a dramatic U-turn, allowing a bid by Tesco to build a supermarket in Whittlesey (when) just weeks earlier they has refused it in favour of a Sainsburys. So why were planning rules broken, and why sack several high-profile councillors, including the Vice Chair of that committee, Martin Curtis? He spoke to our news editor Mousumi Bakshi. (TAPE)
MARTIN CURTIS: I think first of all I think Whittlesey people have been crying out for something to happen, and to be given some indication that change is happening. Because they are deeply deeply affected, and they are concerned about everything that’s gone on. I am a little bit baffled about my sacking. I don’t understand the reasons for it, that’s quite clear, the reasons that were given. And that’s why I’ve made the email that I sent to Alan public. It does surprise me, to be told that it was about community concerns that I was being sacked as Vice Chairman of Planning. And actually the truth is I’ve had nothing but support for the way I’ve acted, for the integrity that I’ve shown. Me being sacked took me by surprise.
MOUSUMI BAKSHI: But you welcome something happening. You thought that something should happen.
MARTIN CURTIS: Something should happen. There had to be changes. There had to be a reaction to what happened, because it was .. there’s no doubt about it. I said this before. It turned from something that Whittlesey was celebrating as a great piece of democracy, into something that was a mess. I had considered my position, because I was so concerned about the messages that that decision sent to Whittlesey people
MOUSUMI BAKSHI: Scapegoated?
MARTIN CURTIS: I don’t know, and I’m not going to comment on that, to be honest. What’s happened has happened. I’m not convinced by the reasons I’ve been given, and I really would like somebody to say, actually, if it was because I was too robust in the way that I dealt with what happened, I’d like somebody to be honest and say that. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. I’d like to know where these community concerns are coming from, because it’s not what I’m hearing. And if they’re there, if I’ve got something to learn from it, I need to learn it. But that’s also true of Fenland. Fenland have to learn some lessons. And they know that. And that’s why I’m glad Alan’s done something today. (LIVE)
PAUL STAINTON: Well that was Martin Curtis speaking to our News Editor Mousumi Bakshi. Listening to it was the man himself, Alan Melton, Leader of Fenland District Council. What’s Martin done?
ALAN MELTON: Martin has done nothing wrong as far as planning is concerned. And I actually admire his passion for the way that he’s promoted his views regarding the Whittlesey application. When it comes to Whittlesey I don’t think there’s anybody more passionate than Martin. In fact I have a lot of sympathy with him, because actually I’m accused of doing exactly the same when Chatteris issues are raised. But as your introduction says, and it says in the local newspapers as well, and as Martin acknowledged, something seriously has gone wrong. Something has caused a lot of embarrassment to the Council, and a lot of embarrassment to councillors. And something has to be done to correct this, and that is why we’ve taken the advice of our counsel to actually rerun the whole process.
PAUL STAINTON: Just remind us what happened Alan if you will, in a nutshell.
ALAN MELTON: Originally there were three applications, one country park and industrial units, one for a superstore run by Tescos, and one for a superstore or food store run by Sainsburys. And there was a planning meeting, where originally the whole thing was deferred. And then it came back again. And what happened then was the Sainsburys applications were approved, with the country park and the industrial unit, against officers recommendation. We were advised that before the decision notices were issued, that the Planning Committee should take one further look at this, and at that subsequent meeting the Planning Committee did a volte face and although they reiterated that Sainsburys should be approved, they then also changed their minds and approved a Tesco as well. So that leaves us with a problem, where we have two standing supermarket applications approved, whereas our advice from all of our planning consultants is that Whittlesey can only take one store. This would have meant two stores operating in Whittlesey, (which) would decimate the town centre.
PAUL STAINTON: You’ve now sacked your Planning Committee.
ALAN MELTON: Hang on. I know there are mavericks out there who would say the free market should decide, build them two, build both of them, and let the market decide. I’m sorry, but it’s not as simple as that. There are such issues to be taken into concern is the viability of town centres, which is very very important to the local economy.
PAUL STAINTON: So you’ve sacked the whole of the Planning Committee? And it strikes me that these councillors are out of control, out of your control. You’re the man in charge. This has happened on your watch.
PAUL STAINTON: And Fenland District Council has become an absolute laughing stock.
ALAN MELTON: Absolutely.
PAUL STAINTON: Did you consider your own position Alan?
ALAN MELTON: Abso .. no, not at all. I have deliberately .. deliberately .. because I know what an emotive issue this has been .. I have deliberately kept out of it. It’s not the job of the Leader of the Council to direct the direction that the Planning Committee go. And it shouldn’t be. As far as I was .. where I intervene is when the integrity of the Council is at stake. And that’s why I had to intervene. There are some allegations been made against one or two councillors, which will have to be investigated by the Conduct Committee. My view is that while those investigations take place one or two people’s positions are untenable.
PAUL STAINTON: Which councillors are being investigated?
ALAN MELTON: Well you can read that in the press, but one is Mrs French at the moment, and she’ll be given the opportunity to clear her name.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s she been accused of?
ALAN MELTON: Well, Mrs French has had official complaints against her about her conduct at the Planning Committee. As I say, I’m not going to go into that debate. That’s for Mrs French to defend herself, and I’m sure she will. You asked the question about Martin, and what Martin’s done wrong, and I’ll answer that. As I said earlier, I admire Martin’s passion and his knowledge of planning, and the contribution to both the County Council and Fenland District Council.
PAUL STAINTON: But he wasn’t involved in this decision, was he?
ALAN MELTON: You asked my opinion. If you want my opinion, and Martin wants my opinion, I believe, and I did tell Martin this, that he has allowed himself to get too emotionally involved with one particular planning application. And the perception out there, he probably doesn’t want to hear this, but this is a fact, the perception out there is Martin has allowed himself to get too close.
PAUL STAINTON: Was he part of this decision?
ALAN MELTON: Martin took himself off the Planning Committee and as Vice Chairman during the hearing of these ..
PAUL STAINTON: So it’s nothing to do with him Alan.
ALAN MELTON: No. What I’m saying is Martin is a senior member of Fenland District Council.
PAUL STAINTON: Why have you sacked him then, if he’s nothing to do with it?
ALAN MELTON: Martin hasn’t been sacked. Martin has been stood down.
PAUL STAINTON: You asked him to resign, didn’t you?
ALAN MELTON: I asked Martin to resign. He offered to resign.
PAUL STAINTON: Isn’t that sacking?
ALAN MELTON: And I asked him to resign, and reenact .. re .. er the ..
PAUL STAINTON: He didn’t offer to resign. We’ve spoken to him.
ALAN MELTON: That’s right. He did. And I acknowledge that as a draft.
PAUL STAINTON: No he didn’t offer to resign.
ALAN MELTON: No, he wrote me a resignation letter a couple of weeks ago, and it’s on draft. Ok? And I acknowledged it as a draft.
PAUL STAINTON: You’ve become a laughing stock Alan. It’s a joke. Isn’t it?
ALAN MELTON: Well. The thing is, you’re absolutely right.
PAUL STAINTON: You’re in charge.
ALAN MELTON: I know. And that’s why I’m taking the action I have. And if you’d listened to what Martin said again, he acknowledged that action had to be taken. And I’ve got no regrets at the action I’ve taken. I intend to reconstruct the Planning Committee. Some of the same members may still be there, but they’ll be properly trained. Again incidentally that’s something ..
PAUL STAINTON: But you’ve not had them trained before?
ALAN MELTON: .. to do some time ago.
PAUL STAINTON: They’ve not been trained before then?
ALAN MELTON: They’ve been trained, but I don’t believe in the current legislation the training is of adequate standard. And that’s something I intend to put right.
PAUL STAINTON: Shocking. Shocking incompetence on your watch Alan.
ALAN MELTON: That is not .. that is not just .. that’s not unique just to this Council I’m afraid. Unfortunately that happens in a lot of councils. And I think you know we need to ..
PAUL STAINTON: Careful now Alan. Careful. You’re going to get people thinking that councillors are a complete waste of time.
ALAN MELTON: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Look, Planning is a semi-quasi-judicial Committee.
PAUL STAINTON: What does that mean?
ALAN MELTON: It has the power.
PAUL STAINTON: What does that mean, Alan?
ALAN MELTON: What it does, it’s a legal committee. It has the powers to decide both on planning application, some significant, some not quite so significant.
ALAN MELTON: My view is that all members of any planning committee is probably one of the most important committees of any district council or county council.
PAUL STAINTON: And you put a load of people on there who are amateurs, don’t know what they’re doing.
ALAN MELTON: What I’m saying is I believe in this instance, that the conduct and the way things were run, it wasn’t run correctly. And I intend to do something about that. What I want to do is make one thing quite clear. I’m not suggesting in any way whatsoever that those decisions that were made were wrong. That’s for the correct committee to decide. What I’m saying is is that when those decisions are made, and for whatever reason they should be purely on planning grounds, and planning grounds only, and not on emotional grounds.
PAUL STAINTON: Are you staying Alan?
ALAN MELTON: Of course I am.
PAUL STAINTON: Alan Melton, Leader of Fenland District Council. He’s staying, but 14 Members of his Planning Committee have gone, because they weren’t up to scratch, according to Alan this morning, hadn’t had the proper training.