MP Swire urges Whitehall to ‘call in’ Knowle controversy

EAST Devon MP Hugo Swire has vowed to call on his Whitehall colleagues to independently scrutinise the district council’s plans to redevelop its Knowle headquarters.

Mr Swire revealed he will ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, to ‘call in’ the proposals if they are approved.

He said the move was necessary in the interests of “probity, accountability and transparency”.

“I’m not against it, I’m not for it,” said Mr Swire.

“I just want to make sure I’m fulfilling my role as an MP so everyone is absolutely certain proper procedures have been adhered to.”

Mr Swire said he respected East Devon District Council’s aspirations to relocate and the possible sale of its current Sidmouth home as a result - and didn’t question its motives.

But he recognised that an authority determining the fate of its own plans, relating to land it owns, would inevitably be looked on as controversial.

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“Because this is so contentious in terms of the council giving itself planning permission, in the interests of probity, accountability and transparency, it will be better if it’s called in,” he said.

“I’m going to urge Eric Pickles to call it in.

“It’s so contentious that people will only be assuaged if it’s seen to be a genuine, independent decision.”

Mr Swire said the public “failed to understand the limited role” of an MP in planning matters like Knowle.

“I totally support local democracy, including the council’s decisions to do what it wants,” he added.

“It’s not for an MP to second guess the local authority which is responsible for decisions, but I do have a role in ensuring proper procedures are adhered to.

“If localism means anything, it’s local people’s views have been listened to. That doesn’t mean there can be a block on everything.”

Mr Swire said he penned a letter to Mr Pickles on behalf of a number of his constituents in September.

In his response, Mr Pickles said his office had received a petition and a number of letters and emails on the subject.

He added: “In light of the large volume of correspondence we have received, my officials will be considering whether call-in is appropriate.

“However… my general approach is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of local authorities unless it is necessary to do so. Consequently, I only consider calling in applications where issues of regional or national importance arise.”

In dealing with applications for their own proposals, councils must apply the same statutory planning procedures in the same way for private development.

“Every authority is accountable to its auditor, the electorate and ultimately the courts for the procedures it follows and for the decisions it takes on applications... including its own,” added Mr Pickles.

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