COUNCILLORS held private meetings with the developer of Florida Farm North and failed to keep any records prior to the plans being submitted, the Ombudsman has said.

Plans to create a £150 million development of industrial and distribution warehouses on green belt land in Haydock were approved by St Helens Council’s planning committee in January 2017.

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 council officers and members during the pre-application stage.

The complainant, referred to in the Ombudsman’s report as Mrs B, discovered that 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 another element to the complaint regarding comments made by councillors during the planning 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.

On this occasion, the investigator ruled that 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 says the council will ensure officers and members are aware they must make notes of pre-application discussions.

However, a council spokesman told the Local Democracy Reporter Service that it is not a ‘compulsory requirement’ to keep notes of any meetings with developers during the pre-application stage.

"When someone wants to submit a planning application, they are encouraged to enter into pre-applications discussions with the council," the spokesman said.

“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.”

Numerous protests were staged by residents in opposition to the Florida Farm development, with residents failing in their push for a public inquiry.

Additionally, around 2,000 objection letters were submitted to the council.

Independent councillor James Tasker, who has been vocal in his opposition to green belt development, said the Ombudsman’s findings shows residents who opposed Florida Farm ‘didn’t stand a chance’.

Cllr Tasker 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.”

Cllr Tasker said everyone involved in planning should now be subject to scrutiny following the Ombudsman’s decision.

The Rainhill councillor also criticised the controlling Labour group and council leader Derek Long.

Cllr Tasker said: “Derek Long and his fellow colleagues scare us with the threat of the Tories coming in and just building wherever they want.

“What is the difference between that and what our Labour council has been doing?

“It’s clear to see that St Helens Labour are not on the side of the people.”

Cllr Allan Jones, leader of the St Helens Conservative group, voted against the Florida Farm application during the planning meeting in January 2017.

The Rainford councillor said he was not aware of any private meetings with developers.

“I would have thought there is nothing wrong with holding meetings with developers," Cllr Jones said.

"But I would have thought it would be desirable to keep a record of such meetings.”

Cllr Jones, who was recently appointed as chairman of the member training steering group, said he is 'keen to set in motion' further training for councillors on this issue.

Two elements of the complaint, that the planning committee were wrong not to impose a planning condition and that it failed to properly consider an MP's comments on the proposal, were not upheld by the Ombudsman.

An accusation that a member of the planning committee made inappropriate comments to a member of the public, with the council then uploading an unedited recording of the meeting to YouTube, was not investigated as it did not cause a personal injustice to Mrs B.