Watchdog clears council over Sheringham Tesco decision

A watchdog has cleared North Norfolk District Council of any wrong-doing over the way it handled the controversial Sheringham Tesco decision.

Twenty three complaints raising concerns about delays and procedures have been thrown out by the Local Government Ombudsman after five months of studying the complex case.

A 'delighted' council chief executive Philip Burton said it proved the authority's decision on a matter which prompted strong feelings was strong and defensible.

But one of the main opponents, Eroica Mildmay, dismissed the report as 'rubbish' and was still convinced 'the whole thing is highly questionable.'

The council's decisions over the long-running planning saga in 2010 were at the centre of the complaints. It was the climax of a 14-year bid by Tesco to build a store in town as the retail giant's Cromer Road scheme went head-to-head with a rival Greenhouse Community Project including a Waitrose-run store and linked educational Food Academy on the Weybourne Road.

In March planning councillors backed the Greenhouse scheme despite recommendations of officers that its location, further from the town centre than the Tesco one, would do more harm to the existing traders.

But in October a re-constituted committee, looking again at both schemes, eventually chose the Tesco option – on the casting vote of its chairman after a 7-7 tie – sparking fury among opponents .

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The complaints to the ombudsman claimed the final decision was unreasonable, queried council procedures and the six-month delay between the differing decisions. The investigation also looked into the background of standards cases over the conduct of three planning councillors - who were all cleared - and the reasons why two area planning committees were merged into one.

Investigator Mike Horton, in a decision letter to the council, said: 'On balance and having considered the matter carefully, I do not consider that the council's actions have been unreasonable. Therefore, I have discontinued my investigation and closed the complaint.'

A 'key issue' was the delay between meetings. It was not maladministration to await the outcomes of the standards cases, the last of which took five-and-a-half months, to reduce the risk of legal challenge. But it would have been 'preferable' if they had been dealt with more speedily.

His report confirmed committee chairman Simon Partridge was entitled to use a second casting vote, and there was no reason why he should not have been appointed to the post despite his earlier support for the Tesco site. There was also no need to hold the final decision in abeyance until complaints over his role were finalised, with no further action taken.

Mr Horton stressed it was his role to look for maladministration, not 'challenge the merits of decision that have been made properly, even if people disagree with them.'

Mr Burton added: 'This has been a long-running issue for the council and particularly for people in Sheringham.

'There have been strong and emotional feelings expressed on all sides of the supermarket argument and it is one that the Council has had to manage with great care and sensitivity.

'We knew how high the temperature was in Sheringham and put a lot of attention into making sure we got it right every step of the way. We may have seemed over cautious but we were tackling some circumstances for the first time.'

The council, which spent a 'significant amount of money' on its case to the ombudsman, had been confident it took a robust approach to the whole process, and the outcome proved their view the decision was a 'strong and defensible' one that would stand up to scrutiny.'

He was 'delighted' with outcome, which had been hanging over planning staff, who could now 'get closure' and move on.

Ms Mildmay, from the Sheringham Campaign Against Major Retail Overdevelopment, questioned the effectiveness of the Local Government Ombudsman and said: 'The report is complete rubbish, mildly predictable and not correct. The whole thing was very dubious and highly questionable.'

Tesco spokesman Louise Gosling said the company was aiming to make a start on the town's replacement fire station and community centre, in late summer or autumn, before an eight-month build of the store began the following spring.

It had slipped a bit because of co-ordinating work across the three sites but the Sheringham scheme was 'probably our most important project' because of the time spent on it.

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