A stretch of land thought to be protected to prevent Houghton from merging into the westward expansion of St Ives was put at risk because of failings at Huntingdonshire District Council, a report claims.
The council has been accused of maladministration in its strategies, consultation processes and actions – a series of mistakes which last year led to potential development of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) field, next to Houghton Grange.
The report, compiled by management consultant Andrew Sparke, says residents in Houghton and Wyton believed the field was protected following a statement by a planning inspector, who considered HDC’s Local Plan Alteration in 2002.
The inspector said: “Maintenance of the gap between the two sites is vital to the separate physical identity of St Ives and Houghton.”
However, as part of adopting the Core Strategy, HDC – in line with Government guidance at the time – produced a “fairly featureless map of St Ives and Houghton” which identified land west of the old golf course as an area for residential development.
HDC officers talked to St Ives Town Council about developing the land, when the field had been transferred into the Houghton and Wyton parish during boundary changes in January 2008. Some HDC officers were only aware of this almost three years later.
Mr Sparke writes: “It appears that there was, indeed, such a serious lack of internal communication between senior officers since all the witnesses commented on the genuine bafflement of the planning officer ... when told of the parish boundary changes.
“This helps explain some of the consultation deficiencies which bedevil this case.”
The report adds that Houghton and Wyton Parish Council should also have looked thoroughly into the implications of the development of St Ives and highlights a breakdown in trust and respect between HDC and the community.
Mr Sparke partly attributes this to the “perceived arrogance of some senior HDC officers” and quotes from meetings when villagers were told that development of the BBSRC Field was a “done deal” and was “set in stone”.
Mr Sparke’s report finds Houghton and Wyton residents were entitled to regard the BBSRC field as protected.
It also concludes: “The council could lawfully in 2007 in its draft Core Strategy seek to revisit the protection from development of the BBSRC field, but was under a duty to consult clearly and explicitly on the issue.
“But the council failed to so consult clearly and explicitly with Houghton and Wyton residents and the parish council failed to inquire deeply enough to uncover the implications for the BBSRC field.”
HDC was recommended to review its planning consultations and feedback processes, as well as its record keeping, following meetings with landowners, developers and agents. It was also urged to consider how it could improve communication between senior officers.
Resident Alastair Price, of Houghton Hill, Houghton, who led the complaint against HDC, said: “The village has always maintained the BBSRC field is the strategic gap and the independent report specifically rejected the alternative gap proposed by HDC.
“The independent report painted the picture of HDC as a dysfunctional organisation where departments did not communicate, records were incomplete and which had lost the trust of residents.
“I believe [HDC managing director] Joanne Lancaster has taken initial steps to restore trust in the officers, but I do not believe trust can fully be restored while Councillor Jason Ablewhite remains executive leader.”
Cllr Ablewhite said he wouldn’t be stepping down as leader.
He added: “It’s a policy that was made before my time as leader and it’s my duty as executive leader to ensure policies are adhered to and risks as far as developers go are mitigated as we can.
“Our officers have had numerous discussions with residents and parish council representatives to work on how to keep the green gap between Houghton and Wyton and St Ives from development.
“From a planning perspective, it would be inappropriate for me as executive leader to get involved.”