Fife Council may have contravened its own planning rules in pushing through a controversial plan for a new visitor centre at the Meedies.

On 18 November 2016 Fife Council gave formal approval for the erection of a new visitor centre and the demolition of the existing building at Lochore Meadows Country Park, only 4 days after Councillor Hood promised a packed public meeting in Benarty that the new centre would not go forward unless the community were happy with it.

Now it turns out that the planning consent may be unlawful as it contravenes Fife Council’s Scheme of Delegation, the rules by which officers at Fife Council can make decisions without recourse to committees of elected members.

According to the Scheme, planning officers cannot decide applications which are submitted by Fife Council, or which relate to land owned by Fife Council, or in which Fife Council has a financial interest. The law requires such applications to be considered by committee.

The applicant for the new visitor centre is Fife Council. According to the Lochore Meadows Development Plan (November 2008), Fife Council is also the owner, having acquired the land in 1967 and 1995 before opening the Country Park in 1976. Fife Council also has a financial interest, since all the funding for the new centre (and presumably more or less all the funding for the running of the whole park) comes from Fife Council. Nor can Fife Council hide behind the Fife Countryside and Coastal Trust, which runs the Country Park on behalf of the Council. The FCCT itself is ‘owned’ by Fife Council, being an arm’s-length organisation of Fife Council – Fife Council is the sole member of the company FCCT.

Community campaigner James Glen has written to Fife Council’s Chief Executive Steve Grimmond and Leader David Ross to ask for the “reasoning” behind treating this as a delegated decision and to make an official complaint.

Mr Glen commented:

“This is not a technicality. These rules exist for a very good reason. They are there to ensure there are the proper checks and balances in place when a developer applying for planning consent is his own decision-maker, in other words to guard against the possibility of corruption where the applicant/decision-maker acts in his own interests and not those of the community. This is doubly important when an applicant is also entrusted with looking after the community as Fife Council is.

“By delegating the decision, Fife Council avoided legitimate public scrutiny. Our elected representatives were denied the opportunity to examine the plans in public, to question officers about them and to refuse the application if they found it wanting. The public were denied the opportunity to let their elected representatives know how they felt about the application and to influence the decision-making process.

“This is all the more egregious because, as Cllr Mark Hood on behalf of Fife Council has already admitted, ‘mistakes were made in the public consultation process’. The plans were not displayed at libraries such as Benarty and some community councils were not consulted. Lochgelly Community Council should have been sent notification of the application in the weekly planning list, but this would have been just before it broke up for a two-month summer holiday, so the application could not have been discussed within the allotted time period.”

Residents in Benarty have spoken out against approved plans for the visitor centre at Lochore Meadows, branding the design of the building similar to a prison block and condemning it for its lacks of ambition for the area.

Further concerns have been raised about the lack of any meaningful consultation over the proposals and a lack of accountability and transparency from Fife Council and local Councillors.

The officer’s report which accompanies the planning consent indicates that Fife’s planning department had significant concerns about the original design. The officer, Ramsay Duff, states:

“Externally, and following discussions with the Planning Authority during the assessment of the application, the proposed building has been amended to incorporate black metal cladding on the main elevations, horizontal timber rainscreen on the main entrance elevation and timber and aluminium windows. […]

Through discussions with Council officers the proposed design of the building has been enhanced with the use of timber cladding on the front elevation to soften the approach to the main entrance on the east elevation as well as the addition of other features including the ice-cream serving window, the roof design and materials and various signs. […]

A sedum (green) roof was added to the proposal to improve its sustainability and assist with blending in to the surrounding landscape when in view from higher levels. The proposed mural containing a photo montage of countryside scenery was removed as it was considered inappropriate for the location. These improvements were made to address previous concerns expressed by the Planning Authority.”

It is striking that while communities were denied any input into the design process, alterations were made at the behest of Fife planners over a 6-month period.

The application is also remarkable in that, unlike other applications, none of the responses from statutory consultees has been published on Fife Council’s planning portal. They include important comments from SEPA, Fife Council’s Natural Heritage Officer, Fife Council’s Land and Air Quality Team, Fife Council’s Transport Development Management team as well as a flood risk assessment, a DLM Mining Report and a bat report. These documents mentioned in the officer’s report would normally have been published on the website for public scrutiny.

Now that belatedly the local community in Benarty has had a chance to examine the plans, the consensus is that they lack design merit, are unable to meet even current, let alone future, demand and by FCCT’s own admission are not ambitious enough.

James Glen adds:

“The whole project looks as if it has systematically excluded councillors and communities and has been dreamt up in-house at Fife Council. Then consent was rushed through to meet a deadline created by this administration coming to an end in May with the Council elections. So it’s hardly surprising that corners have been cut to the point of illegality. If this decision were challenged in the courts, it would likely be quashed.

“The leader of Fife Council should launch an external investigation into what has gone wrong here, and start again with this project, taking the time it needs to consult communities and work with them to achieve the funding and design which befits one of the undoubted jewels in Fife’s crown.”

Steve Grimmond, Fife Council’s Chief Executive has written to James Glen to say he has asked Planning to investigate the points he has raised.

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