FORMAL complaints have been lodged against the national park after technical issues stopped objectors speaking out against a controversial plan.
Problems surfaced with video conferencing when NPA planning members debated a proposal to demolish a set of buildings known as The Squirrels, in Brockenhurst, with a two-storey development incorporating a shop and holiday lets.
That upset objectors, including Brockenhurst Parish Council, with members complaining at its latest meeting that the NPA had been “undemocratic”. Members also urged unhappy locals, who have suggested the NPA revisit the decision, to start a petition and lobby their MP.
In response, NPA planning chief Steve Avery apologised and said he is willing to appear before parish councillors to discuss concerns they have over remote meetings.
“We are sorry the parish council were not able to speak at the meeting, and since the decision was taken a couple of residents have lodged formal complaints with the authority and these are now being dealt with under our complaints procedure,” Mr Avery said.
“Ultimately if the complainants remain unhappy, they can then refer their case to the local government ombudsman (LGO).”
Mr Avery stressed the NPA “went to great lengths” to help people attend meetings, setting up trials, testing connections and allowing speakers to familiarise themselves with the Microsoft Teams system.
“In this case, not all the invitations we sent out inviting participants to partake in the trial meetings were taken up,” he said. “We also ask speakers to let us have their comments in writing before the planning committee meeting in case they experience any connection problems and we can then read these out at the meeting, which we did in this case.”
Brockenhurst councillors revealed its planning representative, Cllr John Korbey, and applicant Farooq Ahmed were among those who could not log on to the debate.
Parish administration assistant Mina Beckett said the council wrote to Steve Avery pointing out it “had not been really that great for democracy” but in his reply he “sidestepped” the issue.
The council highlighted problems in relation to remote meetings needed to be solved otherwise they risked undermining public confidence in the system. “This is likely to lead to questions about decisions and real unhappiness with the way things are conducted,” she added.
As reported in the A&T the Squirrels, which were built in the early 20th century and are clad in timber and corrugated iron, are a familiar feature at the southern entrance to the village.
They are considered by the NPA to be non-designated heritage assets and described in local conservation character appraisals as “an important and rare survival of small shops from this period and should be preserved”.
In 2018 permission to demolish them was refused because of their heritage value, and it was suggested to restore them. But D&J Arthur Architects, which drew up the latest proposals, claimed the heritage interest was “fairly limited”.
Mr Farook said he bought the property to create a family business which would be run by his wife Tracy and son Jai, and he was not “looking to make a quick buck”.
The parish council had been opposed because of parking and over-development, while the Friends of Brockenhurst said more holiday flats “were not welcome” in the village and a shop or café “not desirable” since existing outlets were suffering because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan caused huge consternation in the village; Cllr Richard Wolstenholme said he had not known “something that has stirred up as much ill-feeling as this has”.
One objector, Marion Burden, was scathing of the NPA and its chief executive Alison Barnes, who she said had failed to honour a promise to “work with communities”.
Mrs Burden told the latest parish council meeting she believed Brockenhurst was “becoming an Airbnb suburb”, adding: “I know people are moving away because of what’s happening.
“I think the NPA remit seems to be solely to get in visitors; surely there’s a time when the area is saturated? There are 25 eateries in the town – not including shops you can pop in and get some food to go – are we becoming too big?” Mrs Burden asked.