Bath’s planning chief has hit out at “bullying” objectors after personal attacks and “offensive” accusations of corruption.
Planning committee chair Sue Craig said officers were only doing their job but were increasingly reluctant to speak in public or even take on difficult and controversial cases.
Her comments came after councillors called out objectors who repeatedly questioned the recommendation to approve plans to turn Bath’s historic Royal Mineral Water Hospital into a hotel and referred to the case officer by name.
READ MORE: Concrete factory expansion would have ‘devastating’ impact on neighbours
The objectors have denied bullying and accused the planning committee of trying to divert attention from their concerns about the “devastating” proposals.
In a separate but related issue, Councillor Shaun Hughes has warned that residents increasingly feel unable to object to planning applications for fear of intimidation and repercussions, but was told comments cannot be left anonymously.
Planning committee chair Sue Craig has called out “bullies”. YouTube.
Ms Craig said in a statement: “I have noted several occasions since I became chair of planning where planning officers, and the officers from other departments that support them such as highways or environmental protection, have been personally targeted and frankly, bullied, by email, verbally or on social media.
“Some might say the councillors are “fair game” because they have chosen to put themselves in the public domain.
“I don’t agree with this – nobody should have to experience abuse and bullying just for doing their job but council officers, in particular, have not been elected to public life and have the right to make decisions, in this case based on planning law and planning policy, without fear of or pressure from people who may not agree with those decisions.
“A particular favourite seems to be the assertion that the council and/or their officers are receiving some kind of “backhander” which would influence the outcome of their decisions. I find this particularly offensive.
“All the officers I have met in BANES Council have been of the highest calibre. They are not only a pleasure to work with but are fair, honest, diligent and extremely good at what they do.
“It is a very long and difficult process to recruit and train officers with specialist skills such as planning, and they should be respected for the work they do and the huge amount of knowledge they hold.”
A protest was held against plans to develop The Mineral Water Hospital in Bath
(Image: Bath Campaigns)
She added: “Instead of that, some officers are increasingly reluctant to speak at committee or even take on difficult and controversial cases for fear of the bullying they may experience.
“Anyone who has a grievance against the council or one of its officers should go through the proper channels and lodge a formal complaint so that it can be properly investigated – bullying and intimidation is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
The Fragrance Group’s plans to turn the Min into a 160-bed hotel were approved last week – a decision described as “absolutely devastating and life changing for the local residents”.
Speaking at the planning committee meeting, objector John Mountford from Bath Campaigns said: “Why do the council and this applicant seem to be working so closely together, often behind closed doors and always reaching the same conclusions?”
John Mountford from Bath Campaigns with case officer Tessa Hampden in the background. YouTube.
When he asked if the decision-making process had been “institutionally corrupted”, Ms Craig stopped him and told him to stick to the facts.
Mr Mountford challenged the case officer, Tessa Hampden’s “astonishing” assertion that more hotel rooms may not be needed but it was not the planning system’s role to regulate the market.
Ms Craig apologised to Ms Hampden for any offence, and another told Bath Campaigns member, Jane Samson, to stop referring to the case officer by name.
Jane Samson from Bath Campaigns with case officer Tessa Hampden in the background. YouTube.
Ms Samson said: “If you have felt under any pressure to allow this application then you must ask yourselves why. Is it ethical to put pressure on decision makers or should they be free to decide according to planning rules and the underlying law?”
Councillor Duncan Hounsell said members had not been under any pressure.
Councillor Eleanor Jackson said the “assault” on the case officer was “so unfair” because reports are compiled by multiple people rather than individuals.
Ms Craig added: “Such bullying of officers is not acceptable.”
Responding to the criticism, a spokesperson for Bath Campaigns said: “No one was bullied as has been asserted.
“The case officer was asked about what she had said and written regarding her publicly available reports provided to the committee to support her recommendation. Referring to this is not bullying.
“Asking about the wording used in the reports is rigour that the councillors should be employing.
“Instead of any kind of interrogation of express intent it was deliberately made very personal. It felt like a tactic to divert attention from issues raised.
“Councillors and officers should expect legitimate questioning and should be able to explain their processes and reasoning for language choices. They are not somehow above the public and shouldn’t expect an absence of scrutiny or difficult questions.”