A1M Kirby Hill service station: Harrogate council accused of 'whitewash' over investigation into 'massaged' report
Campaigners who spent 25 years fighting plans for a motorway service station have accused Harrogate Borough Council of a "whitewash" after it published its findings into an investigation.
The council launched the probe after it emerged a planning officer sent emails saying he "massaged" a key report on the A1(M) service station near Kirby Hill which was approved at appeal in April despite seven previous refusals since 1997.
A council statement previously said the investigation concluded "no irregularities" took place - and the findings have now been revealed in full to the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
The findings say the reference to “massaging” was "simply a poor choice of wording" and was in the context that the officer had amended the landscaping report to ensure it was "acceptable".
However, the two planning officers involved in the emails were not interviewed as they had left the council and their previous messages were also deleted as "standard practice" to manage storage limits.
Gareth Owens, chairman of campaign group Kirby Hill RAMS (Residents Against Motorway Services), said: "This so-called investigation and report amounts to a council whitewash of a deeply suspicious and disturbing episode in the planning department.
"This was not an independent investigation therefore - it was the planning department investigating itself.
"Little wonder, then, that the report concludes there were ‘no irregularities’.
"We now need a thorough, independent investigation of this matter and I call on the council to instigate one."
The landscape report presented to councillors is significant because it said the impact of the service station on the area was "not substantive".
This assessment was described by campaigners as a "complete U-turn" from a previous council report which warned the plans would cause "significant harm".
Despite a recommendation of approval from officers, members of the council's planning committee still rejected the service station in November 2019.
However, campaigners believe the officer's recommendation and "massaged" landscaping report still had a major impact on the outcome of the appeal which followed.
Mr Owens said: "Members of the planning committee should remain very concerned about officers’ behaviour in this matter, particularly since the inspector at the public inquiry went along with the 'massaged' recommendation."
Mr Ownes also raised questions over a verbal statement made by the planning officer to councillors.
The investigation findings state it was "unclear" whether the officer said “two landscape officers have judged the proposal and the proposal did not consider it caused significant harm" as this was not recorded in a transcript.
However, an audio recording of the meeting shared by Mr Owens reveals the officer did say those words.
Mr Owens said: "The evidence of this recording shows that the planning committee was misled.
"We feel that the investigator owes Kirby Hill RAMS an apology for trying to cover this up by stating as fact in their report that ‘the transcript has not accurately recorded the statement’ when they had not even listened to the recording.
"This concern could of course have been discussed with us during the investigation. It was not."
The investigation was headed by Kathryn Daly, head of place shaping and economic growth at the council, who concluded: "The use of the word 'massaged' in the email sent by the principal landscape officer to the planning officer is far from ideal, but my conclusion is that this was simply a poor choice of wording.
"For completeness, it would have been helpful to see whether there were additional emails between the two officers. However, corporate restrictions on Outlook storage mean that it is standard practice to delete historic emails.
"If this deletion is not done, the email account quickly goes above the storage limit and cannot be used."
A council statement also previously said: “We can confirm that, following allegations that a report was ‘massaged’, an investigation was carried out.
“This investigation found no irregularities in the preparation of the officer report for the planning committee.
“As was stated at the time, officer recommendations are fair and impartial, and carefully considered against local and national planning policy, case law, consultation and anything else considered to be ‘material’ to the decision.”
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter