A legal challenge is being considered to last months’ decision by a government planning inspector to give Marlborough College victory in its bid to take over the town’s Ivy House Hotel as a hostel for its girl students.
The sensational turn of events follows the revelation of a freedom of information application seeking details of how planning inspector Paul Jackson came to his conclusion, which allows the college to buy the hotel for an expected £1.8 million.
In doing so he overturned the views of Wiltshire Council – and those of Marlborough town council and leading local petitioners – who objected to the loss of the grade II listed hotel in Marlborough High Street.
Wiltshire and Marlborough Town Councillor Nick Fogg
Now Wiltshire Council leader Jane Scott is to be quizzed by former Marlborough mayor Nick Fogg (pictured) on potentially serious breaches made by the inspector in arriving at his conclusion that deprives Marlborough of its major, 28-bed hotel.
And the situation could result in a challenge being made direct to Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who appointed Mr Jackson to conduct the planning appeal.
It was suggested by Claire Perry, Marlborough’s MP, that the government’s new Localism Bill, which came into force on October 2, would sway the inspector to allow the council itself to be responsible for making a vital local decision.
But Mr Jackson made his decision just days before the Bill came into operation, infuriating Mr Fogg, an independent Wiltshire and Marlborough town councillor, and objectors who signed a Marlborough Chamber of Commerce petition.
Mr Fogg revealed the remarkable turn of events at last night’s Marlborough town council meeting when the planning appeal result was officially recorded.
He pointed out that the inspector consulted none of those involved in the case before making his decision and that only Mike Wilmott, Wiltshire’s area development manager, and Suzie Willis, representing planners DTZ on behalf of the college, were advised of the site visit he made to the hotel on September 14.
That was despite the fact that Wiltshire Council’s statement opposing the change of use had been submitted on July 18 and that 39 other opposition statements — plus the petition — had been submitted.
“No one who opposed the planning application was called,” Mr Fogg told surprised fellow councillors and pointed that he was now going to table a question for Jane Scott, leader of Wiltshire Council, to answer.
It read: “Could the leader tell us of the circumstances of the site meeting that took place at the Ivy House Hotel between the government inspector, Mike Wilmott of Wiltshire Council and Suzie Willis of DTZ?
“Is she aware that no-one who was opposed to this application was invited to meet the inspector? Could she furnish whatever representations were made by Mr Wilmot on behalf of the Eastern Area Regulatory Planning Committee, which had voted to oppose this application by Marlborough College to turn the hotel into a boarding House?”
The outcome of Jane Scott’s response will be significant as to whether a legal challenge is mounted to overturn the planning appeal decision.
It is also understood that two Marlborough residents who objected to the change of use had their protest rejected because it was received out of time while another communication to the inspector supporting the chance was accepted.
“We are looking at different ways of taking this vital matter forward,” Mr Fogg, who had earlier described the loss of the Ivy House as a “disaster for the town”, told Marlborough News Online.
Paul Shimell, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said: “It is clear that there is some need for an independent inquiry into what has happened over the Ivy House Hotel.”
“That is now essential in the name of openness and accountability, which the government is demanding of all its departments and local authorities.”
The inspector decided that the conversion could proceed on the basis that the loss of the hotel “would have no effect on the number of A1 shop uses in the High Street” despite evidence that the vitality of the town would be hit by its loss.
“There would be a positive effect on income received by local businesses and an increase in wages that contribute to the local economy,” says his report.
“The vitality of the area would not be affected. The proposed development would not conflict with the aims PPS4 (a planning objective) or development plan policies and the appeal should be allowed.”
The College was reported to have been willing to pay £1.8 million for the freehold of the site, a purpose-built new girls’ hostel on its own extensive estate more likely to cost £6 million plus.
An alternative proposal that was mooted by the objectors was for the hotel to be bought by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White and turned into a boutique hotel and upmarket restaurant, the enterprise backed by investors, among them Robert Hiscox, chairman of the international insurance company, who is High Sheriff of Wiltshire.