Secret files published around planning application to build homes close to historic Cardington Sheds

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Secret documents kept from councillors during a planning application to build homes around the iconic Cardington Sheds have been made public after a year-long battle.

The Bedfordshire Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) forced Bedford Borough Council to publish the documents, crucial to the case to build 600 homes around the Grade II listed airship sheds, by lodging a Freedom of Information complaint to the Information Commissioners Office.

The group now believes had the information been available to the plannning committee, permission may never have been granted.

CPRE chairman Gerry Sansom said the “secret files” relate to a viability report which argued by building the houses, reducing the number of affordable homes and obtaining a range of other reductions to planning obligations, the applicant could repair Shed 1 at an estimated cost of £10.9m.

He said: “When the application was first submitted, the CPRE found inconsistencies with the viability report.

“Bedford Borough Council commissioned an independent assessment, which also found significant problems regarding the value of Shed 1, the selling price of the houses, and other serious issues.”

Mr Sansom said the application was then withdrawn.

When it was re-submitted, the viability report was deemed confidential, and was even kept from councillors sitting on the planning committee.

He said: “It has now emerged there was no second viability report. There were a series of discussions with the applicant, and a letter to the council from the Independent Assessor.”

He said the Assessor continued to raise serious issues, and his response to the council “did no more than give the benefit of the doubt to the council” should it wish to accept changes made by the applicant to the issues raised in the first report.

A CPRE Bedfordshire spokesman said: “This is an extremely important issue and we are really pleased the ICO has agreed with us that Bedford Borough Council should never have concealed key documents from the general public, or indeed planning committee members, in the first place.”

He added the group asked the council’s Chief Executive to establish an external enquiry into all aspects of the case.

The spokesman said: “We believe that the public and members of the Planning Committee have been seriously misled. He has refused our request.”

With the backing of North East Bedfordshire MP Alistair Burt, CPRE Bedfordshire has taken the case to the Local Government Ombudsman.

Mr Burt said: “Whenever decisions are taken in private or information is not publically available it is essential that the processes are scrutinized to ensure that there can be no room for doubt about the integrity of the decision.

“This is why I have supported an appeal to the Ombudsman to review the planning processes in the interests of all parties, not least my constituents in the area.”

A Bedford Borough Council spokesman said: “The government has introduced legislation whereby developers can request Section 106 agreements be renegotiated and potentially reduced.

“Bedford Borough Council always discloses documentation unless it is prevented from doing so.”

No-one from the applicant, Fosbern Manufacturing Ltd, was available to comment.