[Yellow Ribbon] Priory Park Preservation Society
Chairman's Report, AGM 24/05/2004

Shortly after last year's AGM, the news that we had all been hoping for came through: the Council's F5 scheme was to be the subject of a Public Inquiry. The reason for this was that the planned road required land from, or otherwise adversely affected, several businesses and powers of Compulsory Purchase would be involved. These companies were "Statutory Objectors" because their rights are protected in law. Many PPPS members contributed detailed objections to the Scheme on the grounds of public interest and we became "Non-Statutory Objectors".

Initially it was suggested that the Inquiry would be held in the Autumn but deadlines came and went, apparently because there was no suitable inspector available. The suggestion was that the Inquiry would be held some time in March and that eventually came about, the Inquiry opening on 3rd March under the control of a Mr. Allan Blackley, and closing on 31st March but with a lengthy adjournment because the Council's barrister had other professional commitments.

In the period running in to the Inquiry, we consulted our Solicitor (Susan Ring, practice partner to Richard Buxton) on several occasions and her advice was that we would be well advised to employ a barrister. We were given no indication of the likely cost of this so we set about attempting to raise further funds.

Four local bands (4ft Pimp, Cisco in the Aquarium, Twilight Superfish and Reeper) generously donated their time and played a gig to raise money for the Park campaign. The venue for this was Club Ego, a nightclub associated with the Airport Hotel and initial indications were that we would get the venue for nothing as the Club was not normally open on a Saturday because of clients' problems getting home from such a remote spot! About 180 tickets were sold at £4 each, a great effort in the doldrum weeks straight after the Christmas & New Year celebrations. The youth of the town were well acquainted with the arguments relating to the planned road and were very supportive of our cause. In the end, hidden charges amounting to almost £300 for hire of equipment, the "DJ" and "sound technician" (Club Ego insisted on us using their resident man) as well as bouncers (totally unnecessary as the behaviour from all concerned was very good indeed) reduced our profits. However, as Michael Downer's report will show, our profits were significant and the Society owes a debt of gratitude to the bands concerned, particularly 4ft Pimp, who were responsible for the organisation (commercial break: some of their merchandise is on display this evening. Please see our Secretary to purchase). I was particularly grateful to Michael for his excellent support all evening: this style of music is not necessarily to his taste and, unlike me, he had no family association with any of the bands.

Meanwhile, the problems of instructing a barrister continued. It was our intention to try to keep costs down by employing a barrister only on those days of the Inquiry which were most relevant to us. In spite of our best efforts to do so, we were unable to find out from either the Planning Inspectorate or Government Offices North-East what timetable the Inspector had in mind. The Solicitor was difficult to get hold of and, with hindsight, it became apparent that she had no first-hand knowledge of Public Inquiries anyway (neither, apparently did the officials at Government Offices NE!). It was not until 8th February that we finally spoke to a barrister, a Mr. John Dagg, James Maurici being unavailable. This was now only 3 days in advance of the deadline of our submissions to the Inquiry and Alex Bunn, Michael Downer and I spent about 4 hours in conference with Mr. Dagg on 9th February. He was supportive and gave us some helpful general advice, but felt that it was far too late in the day for him to have any direct involvement in the Inquiry. It transpired that, had we had a sum in the region of £25,000 at our disposal, he would have been prepared to act for us and would have devoted himself to the task for about a month in advance as well as attending for the Inquiry itself.

Given the totally inadequate advice from our Solicitor, who failed to give us any indication of what we required from a barrister and what he required from us, which we only really fully understood during our conference of 9th February, we decided that the only course of action open to us was to represent ourselves.

Once the Inquiry was under way, it became obvious that our original plan, to employ a barrister for a day or two, would have been totally impractical. It came to light that the Borough Council was in the process of "buying off" the Statutory Objectors and by the time the Inquiry opened, only Lookers were really still in the fight. Their representatives appeared on only two mornings of the Inquiry so almost all the opposition to the Council came from the non-statutory objectors. We were involved every day, for most of each day, so Mr. Dagg's decision only to give us general advice and support was entirely understandable. He would have needed plenty of lead-in time to familiarise himself with the arguments and would have had to cross-examine every witness on every day that the Inquiry took place.

The Council themselves were clearly not expecting any of the non-statutory objectors to say anything, because on the first day of the Inquiry the only people to be given microphones were the Inspector, the Council's barrister and the "Expert" Witness. The Inspector insisted upon this situation being rectified during the morning break and it was not long before we were able to cross-examine the Council's witnesses. The only Council employees amongst the witnesses were Graham Dare and David Watts, the latter of whom was indulged by the Inspector in his refusal to appear during the afternoon. He was most evasive in answering questions and hid behind the smokescreen of Thames Gateway. The remaining witnesses were, bar one, W. S. Atkins consultants. The one was from the Museum of London.

There is not the space to give a full account of 9 days' debate in this Report. However, there were numerous regular attenders from our membership, many of whom asked searching questions and caused considerable difficulty for the Council's main witnesses as well as making statements in their own rights. A (hopefully complete) list follows:

Peter WalkerSue SteerChris Ford
Michael DownerShaun QureshiJon Fuller
Martin FullerAlex BunnCarole Shorney
David MoroneyRon BatesJeff Yates
Jon SteerDenis WalkerVal Cook
Eric WhittleAndrea BlackIan Finlayson
Peter MeadDavid HemmingsJackie Hemmings
Mr. MangoraSue ArnoldIrene Willis

It is a pity that the large attendance on the final day was not replicated throughout.

We expect the Secretary of State's decision in June. It is impossible to give any kind of realistic prediction about the outcome: the Inspector makes a recommendation, and even this might be rejected. We just cannot know the issues on which Alistair Darling and his permanent staff will make their decision.

Meanwhile, the future of the Society needs to be decided upon. So far, we have been forced by circumstances to act as a single-issue campaign group. Whatever the Secretary of State's decision, we should now widen our activities to protect the Park. One thing the Inquiry has done has been to force the Council's hand in that they clearly want to replace the existing large trees with smaller, ornamental species which are less expensive to maintain and easier to remove without outcry. This approach should be resisted. In addition, there remains the Council's earlier promise to remove the depot and enlarge the Park. We must do our best hold them to this.

Peter Walker
25th April 2004

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