A1M service station: Harrogate council inquiry launched after planning officer 'massaged' key report
An inquiry has been launched after emails revealed a Harrogate council officer "massaged" a key report on now-approved plans for a controversial motorway service station on the A1(M) near Kirby Hill.
Emails seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service show that Barrie Gannon, former principal landscape architect, made changes to a landscape report in 2019 when the council's planning department went against three previous refusals to recommend approval.
Mr Gannon said he hoped the changes would make the report "read better" - although it is not yet known what was amended.
What is clear though are the report's conclusions. It said the landscape impact of the service station was "not substantive" in what campaigners have described as a "complete U-turn" from a previous council assessment which warned it would cause "significant harm".
The revelations have sparked questions over why a change of stance was taken, as well as concerns over impartiality within the planning department.
Gareth Owens, chair of Kirby Hill Residents Against Motorway Services, said: "It is a mystery to us how officers made a complete U-turn on the landscape assessment. Landscape harm has been the main reason for refusal of a motorway service area at this site for 25 years.
"We do not understand how or why this position changed."
The proposals put forward by Applegreen were most recently rejected by councillors in 2019, however, that decision was overturned at an appeal earlier this month as the developers won approval at the fourth time of asking.
Mr Owens, who gave evidence during the appeal, said the landscape report played a key part in the planning inspector's decision to grant approval which made it even more important to understand why the council had changed its conclusions.
He said: "The officer's report was not only presented to the planning committee. It was relied on by Applegreen at the public inquiry, who told the inspector that he should accept the view of the council's professional planning officers, which he duly did.
"The planning inspector went along with the planning officer's conclusions on landscape, so we think it is important to understand how they were arrived at."
In the email dated November 2019, Mr Gannon said to a colleague: "I’ve massaged the landscape section 9.56 -9.69 which hopefully reads better."
Councillor Robert Windass, who was one of the planning committee members who previously rejected the service station, said he had "serious concerns" about the email after he last week made calls for the inquiry.
Speaking at a full council meeting, he asked the council's cabinet member for planning councillor Tim Myatt: "Will you undertake a full inquiry into this matter to ensure that all reports presented to the planning committee in future are factual, truthful and unbiased?"
In a statement, councillor Myatt later said he was "confident" that officers always made "fair and impartial" assessments of planning applications.
He said: "Officer recommendations are formed based on their assessment of information available about the application, including information submitted by the applicant, internal and statutory consultees, and the public.
"I am confident that officer recommendations are based on a fair and impartial assessment of that information.
“Together with officers, I have met with councillor Windass to discuss his concerns regarding the landscape assessment included in the officer’s report to committee.
"I agree with councillor Windass that there is a need to provide residents with reassurance that our planning processes were followed correctly, and I have agreed with councillor Windass that we will look into the specific concerns he has raised before providing a report to councillors.”
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter