Fringe Box



Letter: To Clear Up Some Misrepresentations

Published on: 23 Mar, 2024
Updated on: 23 Mar, 2024

From: Tom Hunt

Lib Dem GBC lead councillor for Regeneration

In response to: The Dragon Says – When Will Our Councillors “Walk the Walk” On Openness?

I think it is important that we clear a few misrepresentations up here.

1. GBC is not selling the land – yet – but entering into an option agreement to allow Blackwell Park Limited (BPL) to buy the land at some point in the future. I accept this is a pedantic point, but facts are really important here.

2. The decision to enter into the option agreement does not allow development of the Blackwell Park site; only approval of a planning application can do this. There will be an appropriate point for residents to express their views on a future Blackwell Park development, and that is in the context of a planning application.

3. I am very comfortable with the call-in of the decision to the council’s Overview and Scrutiny committee. This is an entirely appropriate route for councillors to exercise scrutiny of such decisions. However, I felt that some arguments put forward were simply not relevant to the decision to enter into the option agreement. The future ownership of the land in question is not relevant to questions about the development, or whether the land could or should form part of the expanded Surrey Hills National Landscape.

4. It is nonsense to claim this option agreement is as important as North Street. Whilst I accept that the potential value of the land may be significant, the option agreement relates to the potential sale of land less than 0.2 hectares in area (which I understand is equivalent to an area less than a third of a football pitch), and as described above does not allow development of the site without a subsequent planning application.

5. The assertion that decisions are kept under wraps presumably implies that all decisions should be made by members. This is unrealistic. The council takes many, many decisions each day, only the most material of which are taken by members or committees. All decisions are published on the website, and the vast majority are uncontroversial.

6. I have absolutely nothing to hide about the option agreement. I would personally prefer it was published, but BPL has advised that it should be treated as commercial in confidence. It would be wholly unprofessional, not to mention unethical and harmful to the council, to breach this confidence. I therefore consider our approach to the option agreement to be entirely consistent with the Nolan principle of openness (ie, information is being restricted only when the wider public interest clearly demands).

7. As I said at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on Tuesday, I discussed with the officer to whom authority was delegated whether the decision should be made by the Executive, and agreed that it should not be. Given the information that I had at the time, I would make the same decision again. Others may disagree with this assessment, and that’s perfectly OK.

8. I must pick up on the point about leaving decisions to “overstretched council officers”. If every decision was taken by councillors, GBC would grind to a halt very quickly. Allowing decisions to be taken under delegated authority is entirely appropriate, and similar delegations exist in most large organisations.

To be clear, this decision was not delegated to an officer, but made by an officer in consultation with the lead member for regeneration (me), and others, including other [councillors].

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Responses to Letter: To Clear Up Some Misrepresentations

  1. Jeremy Holt Reply

    March 23, 2024 at 11:52 am

    Concerning point 6 above:

    Of course most private bodies want to keep secret as much as possible.

    It should be a condition for any private body dealing with a public body (that is a body expected to represent and serve the public) to be open about those dealings.

    If the private body cannot comply with this then that it has made a choice but it should mean no public contracts.

  2. S Callanan Reply

    March 23, 2024 at 1:39 pm

    In regard to point 2, the “appropriate point” for residents to express their views on a future Blackwell Park development is when residents choose to do so not when Cllr Hunt suggests is “appropriate”.

    As to point 6, who are BPL to advise that the option agreement should “be treated as commercial in confidence”? On what grounds? Did GBC happily agree? What did the GBC lawyers have to say?

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