If you are going to complain to the Press Complaints Commission that you have been accused of being inept by your local newspaper, the least you can do is be efficient.
Unless of course you are Cheshire East Council.
As we report this week, the Press Complaints Commission has ruled that comments made in this column that questioned the competence of two local councillors did not breach its code of standards.
The process of getting to this decision also shed interesting light on how Cheshire East works, and put the comments we made in a new light.
Back in February we had a go at Couns Peter Mason and David Brown — both now re-selected to stand in next year’s local elections — over comments they had made on our pages, in a letter and a story respectively. Before we go any further, we would like to make it clear that we have nothing personal against either man: they have both put in many years’ sterling public service.
The criticism came after we repeated our belief that some Cheshire East councillors are not up to the job: the council’s record thus far surely shows this to be the case. The two councillors felt this referred to them. We have to say that after going through a time-consuming PCC hearing we can only conclude that if the cap fits…
The original editorial opened by saying that many of the current Cheshire East councillors were not good enough and needed to go. It then turned to Coun Mason, saying that, with a year to go until the council elections, he was “clearly rattled” by Cheshire East Council’s performance. We said Coun Mason normally wrote letters in the weeks immediately before elections but had sent two the previous week.
We also criticised him for saying he was not named in the Lyme Green report. The council fought hard to redact the names of all involved in the Lyme Green fiasco, and we did not think he should go against the council’s own argument for anonymity for his own ends, which he admitted he did. Coun Mason said the column made him out to be dishonest.
We are more than happy to stress to readers that Coun Mason is as honest as they come, and we are not suggesting that he was lying when he denied being named in the Lyme Green report.
The point we were making was that Cheshire East Council argued with the Information Commissioner that it had a common-law duty of confidence to the individuals who were questioned in the Lyme Green investigation, both officers and councillors.
Coun Mason saying he was not one of those named — and council leader Coun Michael Jones expanding this and saying that no Congleton borough councillors were involved — reduced the pool of potential councillors who could be named in the report, whittling away at the common-law duty of confidence the council previously said was owed. Using the council’s own argument, this could make a future investigation harder.
This is not a complex philosophical argument but it is one Coun Mason seems unable to grasp, being worried only that we said he was a liar.
Meanwhile, Coun Brown, the man in charge of Cheshire East’s local plan, objected to being criticised for not pushing it through hard enough.
To be honest, it is tough if Coun Brown thinks we were unfair. Cheshire East’s failure to have a local plan is one of the worst things to hit this area in many years and someone must bear responsibility.
Coun Brown is the man in charge of the local plan, and has been for some years. He is also a local councillor — what are we supposed to do? Gloss over the fact that a locally-elected councillor is leading the biggest planning/environmental disaster to hit this area for many years?
Given the rash of planning applications and the council’s failure to develop an acceptable five-year housing supply, criticism of the authority and planning is only fair.
We had always shied away from overly-direct confrontation with local councillors — but in this case there seems no other way.
Moreover, if the plan had been a roaring success, councillors would have been lining up to bask in the glory of success; when it is a failure, they are blaming planning inspectors, the Government, minister Eric Pickles and the “greedy” developers — never themselves.
Whatever: the two councillors complained that we had gone too far, and not distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact. They said the column had caused them and their families “considerable hurt and embarrassment”.
Almost from the off, Cheshire East Council lived down to its reputation as incompetent.
When the PCC writes to you, it gives you seven days to reply. We responded to the initial complaint in seven days and the council was then given seven days to respond.
One month later we emailed the PCC.
We pointed out that taking four weeks to reply to a letter proved our accusations that the council was run ineptly. We asked whether our criticism could be judged as true, given this failure to respond. Sadly not.
It eventually took Cheshire East Council five weeks to send its three-page letter.
When its response did arrive, it practically made our case for us. Here are some of the highlights.
• Apparently trying to justify its lack of a finished local plan, the council said that its plan was “in exactly the same position as four out of ten other councils that have yet to have their local plan approved by the Planning Inspectorate”. There are 336 local authorities responsible for local plans. This means that Cheshire East Council admits to being among the worst 3% of councils in the local-plan department; the bottom 1% if you use the four.
• Having accused us of doubting his honesty, Coun Mason told the PCC that the Chronicle “rarely attends” Cheshire East meetings — in reality we attend nearly all and sometimes quote him speaking. We could accuse Coun Mason of lying to mislead to the PCC, but we think he genuinely believes this — which means that not only does he only rarely notice our reporter sitting at the Press bench, writing busily in a notebook, but that he has never questioned where our reports of meetings come from. He has never accused us of making them up. Perhaps he just never reads the Chronicle.
• Despite complaining that we had said he normally only wrote letters close to elections for political reasons, Coun Mason admitted that he did, in fact, do just that. Coun Mason told the PCC that he was the local Conservative Association political officer “and wrote letters preceding elections mostly to refute what other political parties were saying”. As he says, he is very honest — but it does make you wonder why he was getting the council legal team to write to the PCC disputing an issue that he knows to be correct.
• Coun Brown robustly defended his reputation as regards planning but then appeared to show a basic misunderstanding. His response to the PCC actually appeared as a letter in the Chronicle — but because of the ongoing PCC complaint, we were forced to refrain from commenting.
In his letter, Coun Brown tried to belittle the Chronicle by saying we did not know what we were talking about and thus could not be believed, writing: “Your poor grasp of the current situation… is misleading your readership and painting a picture of failure by the council”.
He also wrote: “The local plan and the five-year housing supply are two separate documents. They are not connected. Let me say this again — they are separate and NOT connected.”
That seems definitive enough — except that the two documents are inseparable.
On the Government’s own planning portal, giving advice to councils on the National Planning Policy Framework, in a section headed “how often should a local plan be reviewed”, it says: “The National Planning Policy Framework makes clear that relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites.”
The two clearly are connected. The local plan cannot proceed without a five-year housing supply.
A car body and its engine are separate entities but neither is any use without the other, and when people refer to “a car” we do not always correct them with: “Bearing in mind the engine and body are two separate items and not connected”.
Worryingly, this — the five-year plan (or lack of) — is the very issue that is causing uncontrolled housing development. Coun Brown, in charge of the local plan, believes it and the plan are not connected.
As we argued to the PCC, Coun Brown’s letter was an attempt to mislead readers, denigrate the Chronicle and thus negate our (and the voters’) criticism of the council’s failings.
Councillors aside, we have often wondered why Cheshire East has had such a troubled life. We have suggested poor management systems from the start, blaming the original shadow council.
Being a bit cheeky, when the council lodged the complaint with the PCC, we sent in a Freedom of Information request for all emails sent by Couns Brown, Mason and Domleo (praised in the original column and not making a complaint), council leader Michael Jones, the council chief executive and the council legal department.
We were told that no emails had been sent.
This can only mean that everything to do with the PCC complaint was discussed verbally or in handwritten/typed notes.
Emails can be troublesome but they also mean that everyone is clear about what is being done and who is going to do it.
If the lack of emails over this one issue reflects the culture at Cheshire East, then perhaps it is no wonder that things go wrong. Officers might be working with no written instructions and only their memories to guide them. In our criticism of Cheshire East, perhaps we have missed the obvious — things go wrong because not enough is written down.
To close, it seems that — local plan aside — Cheshire East has been drama-free for some time. Given the Government-imposed cutbacks, hard decisions have to be made and some of these may not be popular.
But perhaps the council is now turning a corner: the Labour Party this week has praised the council for its careful budgeting, saying it had “appreciated the importance of financial discipline and is following its own budgets”.
As regards planning: Coun Brown has assured the PCC that the local plan is on course for a smooth completion. He wrote (we are using extracts): “The local plan… will be finished in 2014. We expect it to be finalised this year. This will be followed by site allocations in the autumn. (The) assertion that it (will take from) 2008 until 2015 to develop the local plan is plain wrong.”
Fantastic! An end to the builder-led developments is in sight.
If Coun Brown is correct, we will write a column praising his and his department’s hard work.
If he is wrong…