The former Labour administration in the Vale of Glamorgan Council was accused last night of bending the rules in order to evade public scrutiny of its then-secret scheme to re-develop the site of Penarth’s St Paul’s Church for “social housing”.
The allegation came in last night’s meeting of Penarth Town Council’s normally hum-drum “Democratic Services Committee” which – very unusually- was attended by about 17 members of the public – and even two Labour Vale councillors [ Cllr Neil Thomas (Labour St Augustines) and Cllr Sivaruby Sivagnanam (Labour St Augustines – an employee of Labour MP Stephen Doughty]
The reason for the unusually-high level of public interest was a scheduled presentation by the Newydd Housing Association – the organisation which was nominated by the outgoing Labour administration in the Vale of Glamorgan Council as its “preferred” developer for the St Paul’s scheme.
In fact the Newydd presentation revealed nothing new – and nothing that hadn’t already been revealed in its earlier public consultation exercise in September – but the Newydd representatives later found themselves having to parry some awkward questions about the miniscule amount of information about the scheme which they had sent to – it turns out – very few local residents.
Most of the local residents attending last night’s Penarth Council committee meeting had also been involved in last month’s public meeting at the Penarth Ex-Servicemen’s Club were. By prior arrangement 3 of the residents were allowed to address the Penarth Councillors for up to three minutes each and did so in an admirably co-ordinated way.
The first speaker Kate Stokes Davies seemed to apply the forensic analysis of a professional barrister to the dealings of the then Labour-run administration in the Vale of Glamorgan Council. She said “local people are upset about St Paul’s because public engagement has been shocking for years”. .
Ms Stokes Davies said that between March 2015 and Feb 2017 the Labour Vale Council’s cabinet “there were no cabinet meetings about St Paul’s” – but yet two fundamental decisions had been taken in that period. These were:-
- The rejection of proposals by a “Community Interest Company” for St Paul’s – and then..
- the cabinet [ apparently without ever meeting] then decided to approach developers to bring forward proposals for a “mixed use development” – a strategy which – she said – represented a “U-Turn” from previous community use.
- In a Vale Council Scrutiny-committee meeting in 2016 [under the previous Labour regime] it had then been announced that the council would consider marketing the site to a housing association.
Ms Stokes Davies went on to say that the then Cabinet Member for Regeneration [Cllr Lis Burnett (then Labour St Augustines)] had confirmed the importance of “proper engagement [with the public] – citing the example of Cowbridge Cattle Market as a “good example of getting it right” . However the Labour Vale Council Cabinet had already decided by that point – November 2016 – that:-
- St Paul’s WOULD be used for social housing
- AND that the Cabinet was aware of its responsibility to engage with the public before making decisions
BUT despite this – Ms Stokes Davies told the assembled Penarth councillors – “nothing reached the public domain” . She said “Nobody asked the community for their thoughts or mentioned that the Vale of Glamorgan Council was heading in a new direction . The decision to market St Paul’s to the RSLs [ Registered Social Landlords – a.k.a. Housing Associations] was made behind closed doors – not in a cabinet meeting and not in the public domain.
By this time, as the comments hit home, some Labour councillors present had taken to examining the elaborate plaster mouldings on the ceiling of the council chamber and the lighting arrays suspended overhead . But, despite the embarrassment, the revelations kept on coming.
Ms Stokes Davies then told the councillors that a request by the St Paul’s Action Group to see relevant correspondence relating to St Paul’s Church under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act had been refused. She said the St Paul’s group would like to know:-
- How was the decision made to change the direction of the St Paul’s development from a community centre to a mixed use residential site?
- Who made these decisions?
- And why all the secrecy?
She said the brief for the project had been sent by the Vale Council to the Registered Social Landlords in January of 2017 [ when the Vale council was still in Labour control] but “this had included no assessment of the community needs at St Paul’s” . She asked why no one had attempted to look into “community thinking” in the area.
She then addressed the crucial financial issue on the project [which had only come to light for the first time in last month’s public meeting] and asked why there were now plans to invest more Section 106 cash [ from Penarth Heights] in Belle Vue Park – whilst St Paul’s was being “downgraded”. She asked “Is the community need greater in the affluent Belle Vie area than in the poorer St Paul’s area”
Ms Stokes Davies said that over he last 6 years there had been three obvious stages where community engagement would have been the right thing to do . She said the site had been “a long-standing headache for the council” and it was “arguably easier not to engage the community” but – she said- “that doesn’t make it right and it’s certainly not democractic”.
In conclusion she asked Penarth Town Councillors “as elected representative of the town to exercise democratic vigilance here on behalf of your constituents. Find out how it got to this stage without the community having any opportunity to engage and please do what you can to make it right”
Tim Land – who had been involved last month’s public meeting on St Paul’s -criticised the consultation process carried out by White Young Green WYG the consultants who are working with the housing association Newydd . He said WYG had the “commerical obejctive of securing planning approval for its clients” – and this had shaped the management of the consultation process.
Newydd – it turned out – had sent letters and questionnaires to only a very small proportion of local residents in a “leaflet-drop”delivered to only 120 homes (out of the many hundreds in the St Augustines Ward). This undersampling – it was alleged – had produced a skewed result from which Newydd had claimed the development was “uncontroversial and that people were in favour of the proposals” . Following representations the firm had then distributed 500 further leaflets.- However Mr Land pointed out that there are actually well over 1,200 dwellings in a 500 metre radius of St Paul’s. “It is” – he said “one of the most densely populated areas of Penarth”.
Many residents – he said- had not received any consultation documents. He did not think that the consultation carried out to date properly understood the purpose and functions of a community centre or has assessed the issue of the integration of more dwellings in the area.
Sarah Sweeney – who had co-chaired last month’s public meeting – then re-emphasised the inadequacy of the consultation process. She said Newydd were under the impression that the 2013 consultation – which had consisted of just 2 questions – had identified local need and “informed the community facilities element of the brief”.
There had been “mixed messages and confusion around the council’s operations on St Paul’s “.
Ms Sweeney said she would like to ask the Penarth Town Councillors and the Vale Councillors (2 of whom were present) to provide the people of St Augustine’s Ward with the open, comprehensive, inclusive community facilities consultation that has been markedly absent in the area since the building of Penarth Heights and closure of St Paul’s – and that this is done before any further planning is carried out on the St Paul’s proposal.
Cllr Mike Cuddy (Labour St Augustines) L:eader of Penarth Town Council, who chaired last night’s meeting of Penarth Town Council’s Democratic Services Committee said it was unusual for so many members of the public to be present at a copuncil committee meeting and hoped those present would come again
Cllr Cuddy had also declared an interest in the matter saying that he was “once and for many years” a member of the Newydd Housing Association and said he was still a “share member” in the Association.
He said “This does not mean I make any money out of it.” It was necessary to have a shareholding if one was to “attend AGMs and participate in any vote that takes place” .