Councillors held private meetings with the developer of a £150m logistics hub and failed to keep any records prior to the plans being approved, the ombudsman has said.
Plans to create a £150m development of industrial and distribution warehouses on green belt land at Florida Farm North in Haydock were approved in January last year.
The Local Democracy Reporter Service can reveal that evidence has been supplied to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman that show the developer had several meetings with St Helens Council officers and members during the pre-application stage.
The complainant, referred to in the ombudsman’s report as Mrs B, discovered minutes of these private discussions did not exist after submitting a Freedom of Information request.
The report says: “The council’s document ‘Protocol for councillors and officers dealing with planning matters’ says that a written note should be made of all pre-application discussions.
“The council did not do so – this was a fault and shows a lack of transparency.
“As a result of this, Mrs B has been left with uncertainty as to whether the council’s decision to grant planning permission was impartial.”
Following an investigation, the ombudsman upheld the complaint.
It also upheld an element to the complaint regarding comments made by councillors during the planning committee meeting in January 2017 that did not relate to the merits of the proposals.
The investigator said they did not believe it was likely these comments affected the decision to grant planning permission.
While the ombudsman cannot question whether a decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it, it can decide whether there was a fault in the way the decision was made.
The investigator ruled the actions taken by the council caused an “injustice” to the complainant.
“There was fault by the council which caused injustice to Mrs B,” the report says.
“The action the council has agreed to take is sufficient to remedy that injustice.”
The council has agreed to provide training to relevant officers and members within six weeks to ensure they are complying with the council’s “Protocol for councillors and officers dealing with planning matters” documents.
In particular, the ombudsman said the council will ensure officers and members are aware they must make notes of pre-application discussions.
A council spokesman said: “When someone wants to submit a planning application, they are encouraged to enter into pre-applications discussions with the council.
“This is normal practice which is considered by central government to be good way of working as it complies with national planning policy framework, which encourages local authorities to meet with developers in order to resolve any issues at the pre-application stage.
“In regard to claims that the meeting minutes aren’t noted, this is not a compulsory requirement during the pre-planning application stage.”
Protests were staged by campaigners opposing the development and around 2,000 objection letters were submitted, with residents failing in their push for a public inquiry.
Independent councillor James Tasker, who has been vocal in his opposition to green belt development, said: “I find this all deeply concerning, and I would like to know how this was allowed to happen and are there controls in place to stop this level of deception happening again?
“I would also like to know who actually attended these meetings?
“The residents who have been fighting against Florida Farm are good people and sadly they have no voice within the council.
“It’s clear to see that the residents of Florida Farm didn’t stand a chance of winning the fight when all these secret meetings have been going on.”
Coun Tasker said everyone involved in planning should now be subject to scrutiny following the ombudsman’s decision.