How staggering Broads planning saga led to fall-outs and a police probe
- Credit: James Bass
A Broads planning row has led to a staggering saga involving top public officials, a 14-month police probe, claims of 'unreasonable behaviour' and an eventual apology from a top police chief.
The EDP can today reveal how a disagreement over a set of moorings in the picturesque south Norfolk village of Haddiscoe has prompted an investigation which has gone right to the very top of local government.
It has seen the leader of South Norfolk Council make an official complaint to Norfolk police about the handling of the application by the Broads Authority - even though the two organisations work closely together to make decisions about the area.
The allegations included claims that officers concealed pertinent information from members of the authority and refused to allow them to take part in decision making.
A hard-hitting private police report, obtained by the EDP, then makes bold claims about issues within the Broads Authority, claiming the behaviour of planning officers "appears to be obstructive, unreasonable and, at times, bizarre".
It also stated: "It appears from the material reviewed in this case that there are issues from the top down within the hierarchy and organisational culture of the Broads Authority, which perhaps affects the ethical running of day to day business in a number of areas, not just the planning department."
While the detective sergeant who investigated concluded nothing criminal occurred, angry Broads Authority bosses complained to Norfolk police about the review.
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And, in a further twist, that has led to an apology from the constabulary, which has now said the review carried "no authority".
Today, the two local authorities remained in disagreement over the issue, with John Fuller, the council leader who sparked the investigation, saying the detective sergeant's comments showed he was right to do so.
However, a spokesman for the Broads Authority, which oversees the management of the Norfolk and Suffolk wetland, said the complaint should never have been made to the police and that official channels should have been used. It has, however, commissioned an independent review into the planning process.
Norfolk police, meanwhile, has apologised for the distress the report, which they said was confidential and should not have been released, caused to planning officers.
Julie Wvendth, the force's chief superintendent, wrote to Broads Authority chief executive Dr John Packman to say it had gone "beyond the scope" of the criminal review and no contact had been made with those who allegations had been made against.
She said: "We deeply regret the distress caused to your staff as a result of how these matters have been handled."
What triggered the investigation?
In 2020, John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, lodged the complaint with Norfolk police over the Broads Authority's handling of an application over land at New Cut, Haddiscoe, owned by David Bromley and Christopher Bromley, of St Olaves Marina.
The Broads Authority had, in 2002, tried to lease the riverbank from them to provide 24-hour visitor moorings, but no agreement was reached.
But in February last year, the Bromleys asked to remove a condition the authority had attached to a previous application, which prevented any mooring at the land.
Broads Authority officers said a decision could be made using delegated powers, but five members of the authority - James Knight, Vic Thomson, Leslie Mogford, Julie Brociek-Coulton and Fran Whymark - plus county councillor Margaret Stone - asked for it to go before the committee.
However, officers refused. It was referred to the monitoring officer, who also said it did not need to go to planning.
At the time, even Norfolk County Council leader Andrew Proctor raised concerns with Dr Packman about why the decision was not going to the committee.
Correspondence from officers mentioned "regular complaints" about mooring there, leading Mr Knight, South Norfolk Council's representative on the Broads Authority, to ask for evidence of what those complaints were.
He was later sent a redacted email dated 2010 and was told: "The parts which were redacted in the emails did not provide any additional information about the complaints which had been received."
But, it was then discovered the redacted text could actually be read and Broads Authority members pushed for the unredacted version to be released to all committee members.
The full email revealed the authority had previously negotiated with the Bromleys over providing visitor moorings there - raising questions as to why they would be concerned over the attempt to allow them now.
Broads Authority members said that contradicted previous statements, along with the reason for the authority imposing the previous 2019 condition for no mooring.
The matter went to the authority's navigation committee, but ultimately, planning officers did use delegated powers to remove the condition, but said it still did not mean mooring could happen.
Officers advised the landowner to apply for a Certificate of Lawfulness or apply for mooring use, with the navigation committee having indicated it would be supportive of 24-hour moorings there.
At this point, Mr Fuller reported the issue to the police, alleging misconduct in a public office, submitting a dossier of evidence, including emails between officers and Broads Authority members.
What did the review say?
The evidential review, carried out by Det Sgt Sophie Getley, stated: "It is my opinion having reviewed all available material that this matter does not meet the seriousness test in order to pass the criminal threshold.
"Whilst the motivations behind the decisions made by the official planning officers of the Broads Authority are undetermined, it is apparent that their behaviour appears to be obstructive, unreasonable and at times bizarre however it is not so serious as to be criminal."
She described the issue of the redacted email as "concerning", but added "it could be said that there was a lack of understanding on the part of the redactor as to what did and did not require redaction as opposed to any misconduct or malicious intent."
She said: "The wider issue here is of the transparent and lawful management of the Broads Authority itself to ensure that it best serves the public which would be better considered by external regulatory review by DEFRA and the Secretary of State in order to ensure recommendation for any improvements are made and are actioned accordingly."
What do the Broads Authority say?
A spokesman said: “The authority is disappointed that this complaint was not raised with it directly using the standard local government process. This would have allowed the authority the opportunity to respond to it. Instead Mr Fuller reported his accusations to Norfolk police alleging ‘misconduct in public office’.
"The police review found no evidence to support the allegations and concluded no further action should be taken by them.
"The police did not approach the authority during the course of the investigation and subsequently the report only contained material supplied by those associated with the complaint.
"This included some comments which the police have since concluded were not within their authority to make and they have since apologised to the Broads Authority.
"They have also contacted the complainants, informing them that the report should not have been disclosed to them.
"Given the nature of the allegation, the authority has commissioned an independent planning consultant to review the handling of the planning applications.
"The written report is due this week and the authority will then consider what action to take. Since learning of the matter the authority has ensured that DEFRA has been fully briefed.”
What do the police say?
Norfolk police said: "After reviewing the material provided and based on the information available, the officer concluded that the threshold for a criminal investigation was not met.
"Our normal process, where such a decision is made, is for the complainant or victim to receive a letter advising them of the outcome of the review.
"In this case, a full evidential review report was provided. This report should not have been shared.
"The evidential review report is a confidential police document, drafted to enable an internal decision to be made on whether there are grounds to commence a criminal investigation.
"In order to enable this process to take place without fear or favour, such reports are not shared externally.
"This evidential review report contained opinion that was not material to the threshold test undertaken.
"The views of the officer were not material to, nor did they impact upon, the decision as to whether the threshold for a criminal investigation was met."
What does Mr Fuller say?
Mr Fuller still believes DEFRA itself needs to be brought in to investigate the Broads Authority.
He said: "I acted on behalf of a number of Broads Authority members who were unable to hold their officials to account.
"I was surprised at the strength of the police's report and it's not surprising that the constabulary wishes to tone it down.
"But the concerns about [the police report's] strong language cannot be allowed to brush over serious concerns about the way in which the authority has acted in this case.
"That the behaviour failed to meet the criminal test does not mean there is no case to answer.
"As the authority has made it clear they do not wish to address these concerns, it now seems inevitable to follow the police's suggestion that an external regulatory review by DEFRA is now undertaken. I will be working with others to take that forward."