Objections to controversial plans to demolish Hove Park Cafe which could have triggered a public hearing were not sent on to the council by developers according to a newly published report.
Gino Fox’s plans to knock down the old cafe and replace it with a modern, Japanese-inspired building were approved by officers a year ago.
The plans were publicised by two site notices, one of which was placed away from the cafe and the other around the back where customers did not pass it.
And the developer’s agent also held an exhibition one weekend, giving customers the chance to fill out a form with comments which were then uploaded to the council website.
The agent uploaded 80 comments of support – but just one objection.
Many residents and users of the park were aghast when they heard about the scheme for the first time after the decision had already been made.
One park user took his complaint about the lack of publicity to the local ombudsman, which this week made its report public.
It said that although the council had not been at fault, it is possible that if the agent had submitted all the objections, it could have gone before Brighton and Hove City Council’s planning committee.
The report said: “This suggests to me the agent did not upload the objections that were received as part of their consultation exercise…
“Mr B’s concern is that if all the comments made had been submitted, including those objecting to the proposal, then it would have triggered the requirement for it to be considered by the planning committee.
“There needs to be five objections for that to happen. The agent [told the complainant there had been] two or three and with the one the council refers to in the report this would still be under the five needed.
“I understand that the comments on the number of objections may have been an under-estimate and if they had all been submitted it might have triggered the need for consideration by the committee.”
The report also notes that the big influx of supportive comments online over a short period of time prompted a planning officer to contact one of those commenting, who reassured him they had been encouraged to do so on a computer in the cafe.
When the ombudsman investigated, the agent explained they had also given out paper forms with a consent section saying any comments left would be uploaded to the council website by the agent.
The report says: “I note the council’s comments that the canvassing of support is not unethical.
“However this went further than canvassing support as the comments were not submitted by the individual but by the agent.
“The council cannot police the submission of comments but an officer was rightly concerned and did contact one of the commenters.
“I think it would have been better if the council had made further enquiries of the agent when the submissions were made but I do not consider the decision not to do so amounts to fault.
“This was an unusual situation, there was no guidance or policy for the officer to refer to and they exercised their judgement and took action.”
Mark Pellant, director of Koru Architects which organised the consultation, said: “The public consultation was carried out in the appropriate fashion.
“I understand from the cafe owner that the complainant who triggered this complaint with the ombudsman does not even use the cafe, which might explain why he was not aware of the proposed development.
“Even if he had objected and the application went to committee, it is unlikely that it would have been refused.
“He appears to be concerned about the loss of trees when in fact there is only one tree being removed. Any harm will be outweighed by the huge benefits to park users of having a new enlarged cafe building and the council agrees.
“The ombudsman has found no fault, the new cafe will be built and Mr B will find something else to complain about.”
Chris Hawtree, who was one of those objecting last year after the decision had been made, said: “I think it shows that the developer did not have confidence in the proposal if it was all being done in this on-the-quiet manner.
“To take something to the committee can bring good debate, as we recently saw with the proposed extra floor at Hove Manor.”
The original application indicated two trees, an elm and a cherry, would be felled and there were concerns that another cherry and a sycamore could also be affected.
Work on the new cafe has not yet started, and the old cafe is still open.