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Revealed: Planners' unrest over King Alfred
The unrest among expert planners before the £290 million King Alfred development on Hove seafront was approved has finally been revealed.
A letter signed by 11 members of Brighton and Hove City Council’s planning department, now made public, reveals they were concerned colleagues had been pressured into supporting the scheme against their own professional judgement.
The council has fought for two years to keep the document secret, since The Argus requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act in July 2007.
It has now been forced to release it by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Click here to see the office's report on why the council was wrong to withold the information.
The letter was sent to the council’s head of planning Martin Randall by officers who had not worked on the King Alfred application.
It claimed their colleagues who worked on the project were having to compromise their “professional honesty and integrity” by being pressured to recommend approval of the scheme despite believing it was a “significant overdevelopment” of the site.
The letter claimed doing so would breach their professional code of conduct because they would be failing the requirement to “fearlessly and impartially exercise their independent professional judgment to their best of their skill and understanding”.
The document did not explain the nature or the source of the alleged pressure on officers.
The city council has denied any staff were pressured into any action.
The plans included a complex of 750 flats, a sports centre and shops, based around two “wobbly” towers designed by reknowned architect Frank Gehry, to replace the King Alfred leisure centre on Hove seafront.
It was approved by the council’s planning sub-committee in March 2008 on the casting vote of the then chairman, Labour’s Les Hamilton, but has since been scrapped because of the impact of the credit crunch on financial backers ING.
The plans were supported by Liberal Democrats and the council’s then Labour administration and opposed by the Conservatives, who now control the cabinet, and Greens.
The letter, sent three weeks before the vote, confirms rumours that members of the planning team had had serious concerns.
It said the council was heading for an “ill-judged” approval of the proposals, which would compromise “planning objectives”.
It said the move would jeopardise the council’s ability to control development elsewhere in the city.
The planning officers, whose names have been removed from the released document, wrote: “It is our impression that, in being asked to support a recommendation for approval, our affected colleagues are being asked to act in a way that is contrary to the code, and could result in disciplinary action being taken by the Royal Town Planning Institute regulatory body.”
Mr Randall’s response to the letter, also released, denied anyone was being asked to approve the recommendation and said no pressure was being applied.
He said: “I am very concerned that anyone would think that undue pressure is being applied.”
He sought advice from Abraham Ghebre-Ghiorghis, the council’s head of law, about whether planning officers who disagreed with the final recommendation could still work on, and present the report.
Mr Ghebre-Ghiorghis wrote that it was “not inappropriate” for planners to do so in such circumstances as long as they were not forced to personally provide information, written or verbal, that they did not believe was true.
A council spokesman this week said: “No staff were being pressurised – as their boss made clear at the time in his reply.”