Fife Council rapped by watchdog

Lindsay Roy MP for Glenrothes, pictures at the area of Common Good land in Leslie, Fife
Lindsay Roy MP for Glenrothes, pictures at the area of Common Good land in Leslie, Fife

Fife Council has been urged to review procedures after a watchdog responded to complaints surrounding the controversial Lomond quarry in Leslie, reports NEIL HENDERSON.

The report centred around complaints claiming the council had “Failed to enforce planning conditions pertaining to Lomond quarry”.

Another complaint alleged that the authority “Delayed unreasonably in taking action in relation to a road build without Roads Construction Consent” known locally as Back Braes Road or the Haul Road.

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman found that the Glenrothes-based council had not “delayed unreasonably” over taking action over a road built without consent, but recommended that it review the way it processes and determines planning applications requiring section 75 agreements to adopt the ‘minded to grant’ style of decision.

The Skene Group which operates the quarry was also highlighted in the report for knowingly proceeding with upgrading the road while clearly aware they did not have the necessary legal paperwork in place to do so.

The Ombudsman’s report stated: “It is clear from the evidence presented to me that the Council accepted the works carried out by Skene were illegal and that Skene proceeded on the knowledge that the work was illegal.”

It also found the “complaints about the potential threat to public safety while the work was left unauthorised and unregulated to be valid”.

This report is just the latest twist in the long running saga between disgruntled residents, Skene Group who operate the quarry and the Council’s handling of the affair.

A second Ombudsman report is still to be published relating to further complaints.

In 2009 Skene submitted a detailed planning application for extension of their operation at Lomond Quarry and a further 20 year extension to the period of quarrying.

The application was subject to a Section 75 legal agreement, however Council officials approved the application pending the completion of the legal paperwork which was expected soon after.

Whilst planning permission was approved in principle, it would not come into effect until the legal agreement was in place. Unfortunately for the Council the legal agreement was not finalised for a further 8 months, until in May 2011.

Skene had gone ahead with the work knowing it was “likely to be acceptable” pending permission being given.The Ombudsman said, there was a “potential public safety risk left unresolved during this time.”

This was seen by any residents to contravene the ‘maintenance and repair’ work as covered by Skene’s original 2005 planning consent.

As the road forms part of the Common Good Land, Fife Council is responsible for achieving best value for managing common good assets.

Revenue has been raised from ‘rental charges’ for private usage from Leslie Golf Club and local farmers, yet there is no evidence that Skene Group have ever been requested to pay a levy for use.

Councillors at the last Glenrothes Area Committee meeting, chaired by Cllr Fiona Grant, agreed to set aside those public objections in order for Transportation and Environmental Services to proceed in negotiations regarding Roads Construction Consent (RCC).

Securing RCC would effectively give Skene the green light to push ahead with the 2009 planning consent and the quarry blasting for dolerite which has already angered the residents of Leslie.

Following the Ombudsman’s report Glenrothes and Central Fife MP Lindsay Roy has written to Fife Council’s Chief Executive, Ronnie Hinds seeking to know how the Council plans to address the recommendations.

The MP has also asked whether there will be a review of the way the Council conducts future business with local businesses and the way in which it considers referrals to the Procurator Fiscal for breaches of law.

He said: “I respect the Council’s desire to support businesses, especially in these fragile economic times. But I take seriously the views and concerns of residents particularly in respect to health and safety concerns and the council’s legal process.

“It’s clear there needs to be a much more robust system of monitoring the complaints process. I look forward with interest to hear what the Council has to say on this matter.”

There have been ongoing complaints concerning the legally agreed operating times at the quarry. Whilst the report decreed Skene had no control over vehicles approaching or leaving the quarry before 8am, loading of vehicles on site outside agreed operating hours did indeed constitute mining operations.

The Ombudsman’s report was critical of the Council’s planning enforcement officer, Eddy Thomson, who was asked to clarify the meaning of ‘operations’ as far back as February 2010. The report concluded: “I do not feel that Mr Thomson’s responses addressed [the complainant’s] issues raised”

It added: “I was presented with no evidence to suggest that the Council investigated whether any quarrying works were taking place prior to 8am.”

Mr Thomson has since retired from his role at the Council and is now employed by Skene Group as their Public Liaison Officer.

In light of this the Ombudsman also made recommendation “That the Council clarify their interpretation of what constitutes ‘operations’ at Lomand Quarry.”

Mary Stewart, from the Council’s Development Management said: “Fife Council welcome decision from Ombudsman that the complaint was not upheld.

“The ombudsman made two minor recommendations for improvements and both of these have been accepted by the Council. The first involves a change to the way in which committee reports are worded and this is being implemented immediately.

“The second is a detailed assessment and definition of the range of activities which will be classed as operations within the quarry site. This work is in progress and will be invaluable in any future enforcement investigations.”