Barratt claim “unfair” Twitter lobbying led to planning refusal

Brunswick Road flats

Rather than embracing social media, a large building firm seems to be trying to stop people from tweeting from public planning meetings.

Barratts, the firm behind a plan to build 241 flats on the former Post Office site on Brunswick Road have claimed that “unfair” public Twitter commentary from an employee of the Cockburn Association during a planning committee hearing contributed to a council decision to refuse the firm planning permission.

The company makes the allegation in the appeal documentation they’ve submitted to the Scottish Government, as part of their bid to try to persuade civil servants at Victoria Quay to overturn the council refusal.

In their supporting statement, Barratts affirms its commitment to transparency and acknowledges the growing role of social media in public debate before arguing: “…had Barratt been aware of the utilisation of social media during the Hearing (following the foregoing ethos of transparency) than they too could have formed an active participant in related supposed ‘fair’ debate.

They continue: “Barratt therefore consider that they were placed at an unfair advantage having been restricted to a 15 minute presentation and (oneway) answer session only. Notwithstanding, the apparent running commentary by the Cockburn Association (a contributing factor in the derailment of the application that was otherwise seemingly destined for approval), and overt lobbying of Councillors pre and during the Hearing, is contended highly questionable from a professional and ethical point of view and rather accentuates the political and egotistical (on the part of the lobbying Consultee) intervention that resulted in the refusal of planning in the face of a recommendation for approval.”

The “egotistical” Cockburn Association employee doing the tweeting at that committee meeting was Euan Leitch – who has since left the Cockburn Association to work elsewhere – but he did give us permission to publish extracts from his response to the Barratts allegations that he’s submitted to the Scottish Government as part of the appeal process.

Writing in a purely personal capacity Euan says: “The use of social media by members of the public gallery at Council meetings is well established as it offers wider reporting of meetings that are not minuted or recorded in full. Until the recent advent of the City of Edinburgh Council live streaming meetings of Full Council on the internet, reporters from the local press often tweeted commentary.

“In a similar vein I have tweeted commentary from previous City of Edinburgh Council Development Management Sub-Committees which, while open to the public, are not minuted or live streamed on the internet, and it was on this basis that I tweeted while sitting in the public gallery on 12 June 2013.

He goes on add: “Regarding the ethics of the use of social media during local authority committees it would seem a matter that applies strictly to those sitting in a quasi judicial role, in this case the councillors on the Development Management Sub-Committee. The only evidence of a councillor reading the Twitter commentary during the Hearing is a tweet from Councillor Cameron Rose, one of only two members of the committee who voted in favour of the appellant. There is no evidence that the social media commentary was a “contributing factor in the derailment of the application”, in fact the evidence is that the one councillor reading the commentary disagreed with the Cockburn Association’s presentation to the committee.”

In his submission Euan also helpfully supplies all the tweets he made from the committee hearing, and notes that Barratts do not dispute the factual accuracy of any of them, including ones which simply reported some of the comments other people made in the room. When you read some of the missing tweets you can’t imagine why Barratts left them out of the appeal documentation:

But there is perhaps a more serious point to be made here, other than most people thought that Barratts design wasn’t good enough, and that is that contacting a councillor by Twitter is really no different from other ways of contacting them.

Indeed, as a communications tool it should be welcomed – because it is more transparent than email, or telephone conversations, or those unminuted “advisory” chats that may or may not take place between the planning authorities and large developers. Afterall, most of the comments people make on Twitter are publicly recorded for anyone with an internet connection to see.

As Euan points out, it is for councillors on the planning committee to ensure that they do not make inappropriate comment in any public forum – online or off – until the final vote is taken. Euan was certainly not the first person to tweet from the public gallery of an Edinburgh planning meeting, but he’s also certainly more qualified than most journalists or bloggers who have tweeted from there in the past.

People live tweeting council meetings when they are not being webcast is often the only way for people to find out quickly what and how decisions are taken. Often those tweets record details of the meetings that would never have been recorded in the formal minutes, and they give campaigners a way to share their perspective on the proceedings in real time. These are all good things, most people would contend.

Furthermore, Barratts have a corporate twitter account – so they could have joined in the discussion too as it was a public one. Thus rather than churlishly insulting the employees of local civic groups and trying to close down public commentary from people in council meetings, perhaps Barratts ought to take a different approach and hire a decent social media manager?

It would be hugely unfortunate if the Scottish Government even hints that they take these allegations from Barratts at all seriously, simply because it could have a chilling effect on the live reporting – in any media – from public planning meetings. The planning system is already slanted towards the interests of large developers as it is, without this.

Fortunately for Edinburgh residents, the City of Edinburgh Council is set to webcast more council meetings next year online, including planning meetings, and this has the potential to open them up to much more public scrutiny. That will hopefully mean that in the future, if Barratts or indeed any other firm come up with more “soviet” flats designs for the city, that everyone will at least be able to see exactly how the planning decision was made.

Plan B consultation for Brunswick Road site

Whilst Barratts are appealing the refusal on their first design to the Scottish Government, they’re also apparently consulting a new design in December. Details here.

  • Brian Forsyth

    On behalf of Allanfield Residents Association, I also gave a presentation at the Development Management Sub-Committee hearing to which all this tweeting relates.
    Barratt’s agents took the trouble to include screen grabs of various tweets in their appeal submission. It’s disappointing that they chose not to put the most relevant one before the Reporter: “Barratt’s architect agrees the urban design isn’t fantastic”.

  • Brian Forsyth

    Now uploaded to the Directorate for Planning & Environmental Appeals’ website ( is a letter from a planning lawyer on behalf of Allanfield Residents Association. The letter advises that the Reporter has no authority to entertain the appeal as the Council’s refusal notice is invalid; statutory requirements in relation to pre-application consultation, neighbour notification, and amending applications (business units were added to the application at the request of the Council) not having been followed by planning officials.

    • Lizzie

      but none of this is anything to do with the tweeting at the meeting.

    • Brian Forsyth

      Hi Lizzie, not directly, no. Ally has kept us all up to speed with what’s happening on this development site, from the planning application stage to the current appeal. I’m just letting readers know that some of us are still fighting away :)

  • Nicola

    My word. I am well behind in this debate. As a neighbour at Allanfield and having a flat which overlooks the derilict messy site I was looking forward to them starting to build. Maybe not. Soviet. Sounds lovely. Weetabix? Hate the stuff, goes like mush when you put the milk in. Will the same happen to the flats if it rains?! I can understand developers make investments and output money to make money, but surely they have a social responsibility to build something more asthetically pleasing than the revolting brown buildings I live in. Well they are – and look how dated they are. I mean has Edinburgh not learnt anything in recent years…parliament, trams…one planning council disaster after another and now this. It is time they built desirable housing, not something that is going to attract cheap rents and cheap prices. We already have enough of this. As lip service is only paid to the public’s views what is the point of engaging in the debate. Councillors are a nonsense too. What on earth do half of them know about planning and architecture. If the architect is questioining his own design then he too is only looking to further his own gains by putting something down on paper they can build out of cereal packets and throw up to sell on – stack em high and sell em cheap. Works for the supermarkets…but unlike a cereal packet which gets recycled we are left with this for years to come. Worrying.