Wild West Yorkshire nature diary

Rotten to the Core

Tuesday 11th July 2000
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Coxley Meadow A YEAR AGO Wakefield Council decided to save our local meadow from the builder's bulldozer, a decision they've stuck to at every public meeting over the past nine years. Seven months ago that decision was overturned, by, what to me seem, rather dubious methods, as I shall explain. On the morning of the fateful December planning meeting there was a tempest which brought the top half of an old Ash crashing down at the corner of the meadow, right across the footpath, as if it were guarding the entrance to the woods.

the fallen ash Now, on the anniversary of the original July meeting, the rest of the tree has crashed down into the beck, leaving a jagged topped trunk.

a bracket fungus (on birch) There's a large bracket fungus growing on the fallen limb; we might not have realised it, but the old tree was rotten to the core. Only last week a Wakefield councillor resigned as a result of an (unrelated) enquiry into a planning matter.

I'm still waiting for replies to some of the queries that I made in spring about the events of last December, but I think the time has come to try and get a change in the law, so other people don't have to go through what we have gone through. I wonder if you could help me with this one please?

Save the meadow - loose your home!

the meadow in the 1920s I believe that the threat of costs and the (legal) 'suppression' of evidence are being used as powerful weapons of social control to promote development and accelerate the destruction of the countryside. I know, you're thinking 'he's a naturalist, so he would say that', but, consider these points and remember that, if you live in England, you could quite easily find yourself innocently drawn into a situation where you might, legally, find yourself loosing your house.

If we can believe what was suggested in December, a two day public enquiry costs about the same as three family homes in Yorkshire.

It happened to me

Here, from my point of view, is what happened to me;

  • I was threatened by Wakefield Council with financial annihilation (my share of an estimated quarter of a million pounds costs) as I prepared to give my evidence at the Coxley Meadow enquiry.

  • Wakefield Council asked the residents' solicitor for my address (and those of the others giving evidence) in order to pursue me personally for these costs.

  • The estimated amount of costs that we were threatened with turned out to be over eight times greater than the actual costs that were eventually awarded in the case, which suggests to me that the figure was probably being quoted mainly for its power as a threat, rather than as a serious effort to recover costs (it is extremely rare, if not unheard of, for third parties to be liable for costs in a public enquiry).

  • Please try to imagine how I felt; I'm used to public speaking and I've been interviewed live on primetime television, but I've never been so upset and terrified as I was when the time came for me to give my evidence. At first I asked if I could be excused from giving it in person. If you ignore the civilised gloss of 'my learned friend' gentility to the proceedings, and the avununcular reassurance that the inspector attempted to give me, what they seemed to be saying to me was;

    • Make a hash of your evidence and we'll destroy the meadow

    • Take too long with your evidence and we'll pursue you for every penny you've got

    I was persuaded to go ahead anyway and it was only then that I discovered that my 24 page full colour report had mysteriously disappeared. Months later, I've still had neither apology nor explanation about what happened to it but it should, at the very least, have been available to the public in the file prior to the case.

  • I'm convinced that in this case the threats and non-appearance of evidence resulted in the wrong decision being made and I could go through the DOE report and explain its shortcomings. While you may or may not agree with me on that, you can probably see the potential for damage to the case we were trying to put forward. In a criminal court, a verdict that had been reached after a case in which witnesses had been threatened might be considered unsafe and unsound.

What happened next

A hash is defined as; 'A (spoiled) mixture of jumbled incongruous things; a mess, a muddle.' That is exactly the effect that current legislation had on my delivery and, ultimately, the light in which my evidence was considered.

As you can imagine, there's a lot more to this particular case but, for me, the 'suppression' of my written evidence and the threats when I came to give evidence in person feel like a violation of the basic human rights that I would wish to have in a democratic country.

City councillors, parish councillors and our Member of Parliament have all been sympathetic. Council and government officers have been unfailingly polite and helpful, but there isn't much that they can do to put things right.

I'm convinced that everything that happened to me has the full backing of the law as it stands. Indeed it was the fact that I was up against the full majesty of the law that made it so terrifying for me. I was faced with two highly professional legal teams of like mind that I should be liable for costs and an inspector who said nothing when the threats were made (and there's no reason why he should, as far as I can see, they were within their legal rights). I should perhaps explain that the applicant's legal team also stated that they would consider persuing the residents for costs.

I'm grateful to Wakefield Council and the Planning Inspectorate for pointing out the legal framework that underpins our public enquiry system. As one officer explained to me;

'In terms of seeking to change the law I must advise that Circular 8/93 has been the basis for all appeals and cost considerations and represents current government policy.'

Please help change the Law

song thrush at the meadow, spring If it concerns you that planning enquiries are conducted in this way, I would be glad if you would e-mail me to express your support for my campaign to get a change in the law. But, more importantly, if you live in the United Kingdom;

Please contact your Member of Parliament and ask for a end to the possibility of the threat of costs being used to discourage ordinary members of the public from participating in a public enquiry. (DTE Circular 8/93, Appendix 4)

What chance for the countryside now?

My point about suppression of evidence (as I experienced it) is a secondary consideration, but I include it because I would like you to appreciate that, in combination with the threat of costs, it further destroyed my confidence and greatly reduced my abilities to argue my case.

Sadly, I now have no faith in the planning system and I no longer get involved in planning matters. Think about it; I know that if I prepare written evidence it will probably never find its way to a councillor, a residents' solicitor or to an inspector. At vital times it may even be missing from the case file. And if I try to make sure that my voice is heard by speaking publicly, I risk loosing everything because of my possible obligation, as a third party, to pay for my part in an extremely expensive process. It's not my fault that it costs more to mount a two day public enquiry than I have earned as an illustrator in the past 15 years. It's not my fault that a barrister can command a a weekly fee that is more than my yearly income. I gave my time for free, simply because I believe that the meadow is beautiful and has value to local wildlife and to our community; I had no financial interest in the outcome of the enquiry whichever way it had turned out. I will not make that mistake again.

As Bill Bryson said in an appeal for another much-loved corner of the Yorkshire landscape at the weekend (in an appeal to rebuild the Malham Tarn field centre);

'Once the countryside has gone, it's gone and there's no getting it back.'

'Heads, we win, Tails, you loose'

Yes, I know that I have redress in law. I could have challenged the findings of the enquiry by calling for a judicial review. This would have cost me nothing unless costs were awarded against me, and that might have cost me £100,000.

Justice should be available to everyone in this country, not just to those who have the backing of public money, those who have no money at all or those who have a vested financial interest in the outcome.

The scheme has been turned down about five times by the Council and twice by the Department of the Environment. The developer gets a service where, after rejection, his next appeal is posted on the lamp-post on the next working day. He gets a free fast-track service, for his last application, where the whole process goes through in a matter of weeks. When he's turned down he can just appeal again.

As residents we get threatened. If we loose once, after winning seven times, that's it; no appeal, the meadow has gone forever.

One final irony; as a Wakefield resident I have ended up contributing, through my rates, to the costs of both the legal teams that threatened me.

Thank you for your interest and my apologies for droning on and on. I really promise to go back to plain wildlife in tomorrow's diary. But I would greatly appreciate it if you would please take the trouble to write to your M.P.

Richard Bell
Richard Bell,
wildlife illustrator

E-mail; 'richard@daelnet.co.uk'

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