In late 2013, hundreds of households across Beeston in South Leeds received a leaflet headed “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes [BCAH]” encouraging residents to object to the proposal by Aspiring Communities to build a community centre on the former Ice Pak site on Barkly Road. Is the “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes” a genuine campaign group? And if it isn’t, should people be concerned about the influence BCAH might have on the final planning decision which is expected within the next two weeks?
So, what is the “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes”? Unlike most campaigns, it has no online presence. But here’s what I found out:
- The “Honorary Secretary” of the campaign is Dr. William John Birch, a mining engineer by profession who has stood as Conservative Party candidate for councillor a number of times in the past. Dr Birch’s name appeared on a later version of the campaign leaflet, with an earlier version having been anonymous.
- Dr. Birch is a member of the Beeston Community Forum. The Beeston Community Forum also object strongly to the Ice Pak development but two members of the Forum, including Vice Chairman Richard Bell (see comments section), have stressed that BCAH is not affiliated or linked to the Beeston Community Forum in any way and they are not aware of any other Forum members being involved with BCAH.
- The BCAH leaflet has been hugely influential in encouraging people to lodge objections about the Ice Pak development with the Council. The vast majority of objections either mention the leaflet, or are signed versions of the leaflet, or are a petition based on the leaflet. The language in MP Hilary Benn’s objection letter suggests he may have also been influenced by the campaign leaflet.
- Dr. Birch has lodged a number of objections to the Ice Pak development as “Honorary Secretary” of the Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes (see his letters of 16, 19 and 24 December 2013 under planning reference 13/05214). Dr. Birch uses phrases like “a local resident showed us“, “as it is our understanding”, “we would request that”, “to give the official response of our group”. But no one else’s name except for Dr. Birch’s appears on the letters and it appears that no one else lodging an objection has stated they are a member of BCAH, including the person who sent a hand written objection letter on 28 December 2013 from the same household as Dr. Birch.
I have contacted Dr. Birch twice since the start of the year having been told by an intermediary that he would be happy to answer my questions about his campaign. He has not responded to date, including to the last letter which he signed for in early February. In the letter I asked him about the purpose (in addition to opposing the Ice Pak development), history and membership of the Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes. I also asked if there was an opportunity for local people to get involved in the campaign (in addition to objecting to the Ice Pak development) and whether the campaign had any links to other affordable housing campaigns such as Hands Off Our Homes (Leeds). Finally, I asked Dr. Birch what he thought the chances were of affordable housing being built on the Ice Pak site should the Aspiring Communities proposal be rejected. Steve Williamson had previously suggested the affordable housing issue was a red herring.
All of this suggests it might be more accurate for the “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes” to be renamed “Dr. Birch’s Campaign to Stop the Ice Pak Development”. But what about the planning process? Could an individual have more influence on the process by presenting themselves as a campaign? The information that Leeds City Council’s Planning Team gave me about the process suggested to me there might be two ways that BCAH, as a “campaign group”, could exert more influence on proceedings than individual members of the public could.
Firstly, the views submitted by the BCAH “Honorary Secretary” could be separated out from those of the general public in the planning report which the Planning Team will present to the South and West Plans Panel for decision in the same way that the views of the Beeston Community Forum and local ward members will be separated out. We will need to look at the actual report when published to see if this happens. Individuals who signed copies of the BCAH leaflet or the petition version will likely have their responses summarised by saying xx number of respondents signed a standard letter/petition agreeing with the points in the BCAH leaflet. But the report shouldn’t give the impression that these people are part of the BCAH campaign, and the Planning Team were keen to stress it is not a numbers game.
The second way that the BCAH “Honorary Secretary” might exert more influence than a member of the public is if any of the Plans Panel members (see picture below) or other attendees use the BCAH “campaign” to imply that a ‘group’ – which might be perceived as being representative or having relevant expertise – objects to the proposal. While neutral residents will hope that the Plans Panel makes a decision based on the facts, it is ultimately up to each individual councillor to choose their words and tactics during what may well be a highly charged meeting.
The Planning Team are aiming to take the final report to the panel on 3rd April, but this is to be confirmed by the Chair, Councillor James McKenna.