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River bank site planning decision creates three-way row

A three-way row has erupted between Norfolk Constabulary, the Broads Authority and a council leader over a planning decision affecting a river bank site.

John Fuller, the Conservative leader of South Norfolk Council, reported the authority’s action to the police, who spent more than a year on an investigation before concluding that no criminal case was raised.

The authority, which has national park planning powers, has now demanded an apology from the police, who in turn have said that an evidential review was leaked by a complainant.

Cllr Fuller told Local Government Lawyer he reported the matter to the police after taking advice from his statutory officers on what he should do if he suspected he knew of misconduct in public office.

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He said an email relating to an application had been redacted but in such a way that it could still be seen to refer to the status of moorings on the land and so in turn affect its value.

Some members had pressed for the application to go before the full planning committee but officers decided this was unnecessary and outside the scheme of delegation.

The authority appointed Raymond Crawford, a former head of planning at Hastings Borough Council, to carry out an independent review, which concluded that no impropriety had occurred.

But Cllr Fuller, who also chairs the District Councils Network, said: “I and other council leaders are not happy about the Broads Authority’s governance and have asked Defra as the regulator to look into it.”

A police evidential report on the matter was sent to complainants, extracts of which have appeared in the Eastern Daily Press.

The newspaper’s report included the observation from the police: “Whilst the motivations behind the decisions made by the official planning officers of the Broads Authority are undetermined, it is apparent that their behaviour appears to be obstructive, unreasonable and at times bizarre, however it is not so serious as to be criminal.”

A Norfolk Constabulary statement said police received a complaint relating to the Broads Authority’s handling of the planning application.

“The reviewing officer, as is standard with any investigation, was asked to consider if there were grounds to commence a criminal enquiry,” it said.

“This review took place last year and the length of time taken for this to be finalised was significantly affected by the pandemic.

“After reviewing the material provided and based on the information available, the officer concluded that the threshold for a criminal investigation was not met.”

It said the full evidential report was sent in error to those who raised the complaint, rather than the normal letter.

“The evidential review report is a confidential police document, drafted to enable an internal decision to be made on whether there are grounds to commence a criminal investigation,” it said.

“In order to enable this process to take place without fear or favour, such reports are not shared externally.

“This evidential review report contained opinion that was not material to the threshold test undertaken. The views of the officer were not material to, nor did they impact upon, the decision as to whether the threshold for a criminal investigation was met.”

The authority has demanded an apology from Norfolk’s chief constable Paul Sanford.

An authority statement said: “We are seeking personal letters of apology from the chief constable to our members of staff involved and an assurance that action has been taken to ensure that junior police officers dealing with complaints from influential local politicians are supported adequately so that in future, they do not make such serious mistakes again.

“The authority is also taking legal advice on how it can protect its staff from harassment and bullying of this nature.”

It went on to criticise Cllr Fuller’s actions. The statement said: “The authority is disappointed that this complaint about the handling of two minor planning applications was not raised with it directly using the standard local government process.

“This would have allowed the authority the opportunity to respond to it. Instead, Cllr Fuller chose to report his accusations to Norfolk Police alleging ‘misconduct in public office’.”

It said the police did not approach the authority during the course of the investigation and the evidential review report only contained material supplied by those associated with the complaint.

“This included some outrageous and inflammatory comments which the police have since concluded were not within their authority to make and they have since apologised to the Broads Authority,” the statement said.

The authority said the police contacted complainants to say the evidential review should not have been disclosed to them and should be destroyed or deleted.

“Despite this the report has since been forwarded to the media,” the authority said.

It had been “pleased and unsurprised” that Mr Crawford’s report found no fault by the authority or its staff.

His report said he was briefed verbally by authority chief executive John Packman, had viewed documents in the public domain and interviewed the planning officers involved.

Mark Smulian

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