The assembled ranks of the SNP blogosphere have come together, largely in support of the decision to call in the application by Donald Trump to build a housing development of a hotel and 1000 homes (with a golf course (or courses) annexed) partly over a site of special scientific interest. Part of the defence is to claim this is a diversionary tactic from the Wendy Alexander donations scandal. I’m not sure if this stands up. Alexander is being investigated – and there’s not much more to add to a story where Hamble has admitted that she has broken the law, and is potentially subject to criminal liability. To my mind she should have gone by now, Staying means she is unable to ask questions on the Trump affair (for fear of Salmond’s inevitable response). She is a dead woman walking, and her remaining in post damages her own party, and damages political support for the union. Anyway, this diversionary attack has – in various comments on newspaper websites and blogs – been the defence used. (For an analysis of the blog postings see the typically insightful post at J Arthur MacNumpty here and for the various posts, gathered in one place see the most recent Scottish round up and the later post by Scottish Tory Boy, on which I have added a couple of comments and had a reply from the SNP’s Calum Cashley).
If though we step back from this we can look at the Trump case itself. The decision to call in was made under s 46 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 after Aberdeenshire council infrastructure committee reached a decision (the minute is available as a pdf document here and the voting on this is particularly interesting, as is the list at p 4 of planning policies generally applied by Aberdeenshire Council that would be contravened by the development – this minute gives the lie to those that suggest the councillors did not seriously consider the application), but before a decision letter had been issued.
Attention on the relevant ministers’ actions in relation to this proposal (the attack from the opposition parties) has not been focused. Some have concentrated on the use of a car, some on meetings, some on pressure on civil servants. Attention should initially be focused on the procedures. Planning involves decision making and decision making needs to be free from bias, free from the suggestion of bias, and – in the planning context – within the relevant statutory powers. In the Trump case there are two key decisions : the decision to call in; and the ultimate decision on the application (whenever that will be taken). Examination of the form and the process of the decisions taken and to be taken is crucial in determining whether there is anything wrong with the process.
To that end, here are some questions the ministers should answer:
Do the ministers believe that planning decisions generally should be made at a local level?
What planning applications should be decided by ministers?
Why was the Trump application called in?
Why did ministers not let the developer decide whether or not to appeal after the Council refusal, as would ordinarily happen in relation to a refusal of a planning application?
Why was the application not called in when initially notified to ministers, given that the application covered an SSSI and consequently the application would have been notified to ministers at an early date?
Who, if anyone, decided this application was a matter of national interest?
When, if it was decided that this was a matter of national interest, was it decided this application was a matter of national interest?
If that was not decided until after the council infrastructure committee reached its decision, why not?
If that was decided before the council infrastructure committee reached its decision, why was the decision to call in not taken then?
Will this be decided by written submissions or a public inquiry?
Politicians here should focus on the form and the process as well as the various meetings in the background, because consideration of the form and the process will determine whether the various meetings matter (for details of those meetings see Alastair here).
ETA (3.23 pm) Those of you who looked at the Scottishtoryboy post above will have seen that Mr Cashley questioned my legal credentials (and those of a friend and colleague I spoke to about the matter who shared my concerns). Apparently we should have known about the 2006 Planning Act that dealt with this matter. Well, I have some passing familiarity with that legislation and have therefore left a couple of questions for Mr Cashley at his blog post here – comments are moderated so they should be approved later in the day. I asked (in summary)
1. Why he keeps referring to the 2006 Planning Act in his posts and comments, when it barely tocuhes the power to call in under s 46 of the 1997 Planning Act?; and
2. If this application was a matter of national importance why was it not called in until after the views of the area committee were sought, and the local infrastructure committee had given the decision on behalf of the council – thereby wasting Aberdeenshire Council taxpayers money?
ETA (18.12.07, 2.50 pm) As yet no response from Mr Cashley at his blog, this blog, or at Scottish Tory Boy’s blog.