15682-20 Bride v Milton Keynes Citizen

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of correction

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 15682-20 Bride v Milton Keynes Citizen

Summary of Complaint

1. Christopher Bride complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Milton Keynes Citizen breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Row over builder who turned one ordinary estate house into a “nightmare” development with NINE bedrooms in Milton Keynes”, published on 15 July 2020 and an article headlined “’Deep Concern’ over planning enforcement as councillors grant Milton Keynes house transformation plan”, published on 17 July 2020.

2. The first article reported on the upcoming meeting of the Council regarding an application relating to a house, which the article described as the development of a four-bedroom house into two dwellings, one with six-bedrooms and one with two, and a one-bedroom annexe in the back garden. The article reported that “all the work in the leafy cul-de-sac was carried out without planning permission” with a retrospective application being filed the previous year. The article reported that “Planning councillors refused permission – but then gave the builder a second chance to submit another application”, and went on to say that “Protesters point out that, according to the Town and Country Planning Act, applicants only have one chance to submit a retrospective application for something they should not have built in the first place”. The article also contained several quotations from the protestors, who had formed a group described as striving “to save Milton Keynes from bad development”.

3. The second article was published the day after the meeting had taken place, and reported on the objectors’ “deep concern” over the decision of the Council. It reported that “The house in Rylstone Close, Heelands, has a long history of planning issues”. The article stated that “Councillors at Thursday’s meeting of the development control panel were told that the council’s legal advice is that it should not refuse to consider multiple applications or an application made after work had been carried out” and described the Councillors as having been “left straining to reject the application to convert the garage into part of the flat but could not find the policies to do so”. The second article also contained quotes from two of the Councillors at the meeting, including one who said the development was “taking the mick and I don’t want to approve it” but did approve it, as well as publishing the decision of the meeting: that four of the five councillors had voted to approve.

4. The complainant said that the first article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 for several reasons. He said that it was inaccurate to report that all the work had been “carried out without planning permission” as there had been a lot of work on the house had been completed with the relevant planning permission since the house was originally approved to be built in 1987. With regards to the specific developments reported in the article, he said that the “one bedroom annexe” had been completed under full planning permission, and that the garage conversion was a permitted development. He said that the retrospective applications were for change of use, rather than planning permission.

5. He also said it was inaccurate to report that protesters had pointed out that “according to the Town and Country Planning Act, applicants only have one chance to submit a retrospective application for something they should not have built in the first place”, as the work had been authorised. He said that this section of the Act was therefore irrelevant to his case, and misleading to be reported in an article about his property. The complainant further said it was misleading to report that he had been given a “second chance” to apply. He said that there is no limit on the amount of applications a person can submit for their property, and that this was confirmed in the hearing the day after the publication of the first article. He said the term “second chance” gave the misleading impression he received unfair treatment.

6. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to describe the campaign group as campaigning against “bad development”. He said that because the group was campaigning against his property, this gave the misleading impression that his property was a “bad development”.

7. With regards to the second article, the complainant said it was inaccurate to report that there had been “a long history of planning issues” as his position was that all works had been completed legally. He also said it was misleading to report that the council’s legal advice was to not refuse multiple applications or retrospective applications, and that Councillors were “straining to reject” his application but did not have the policies to do so. He said the reason that this was the advice, and the reason it could not be rejected, was because the application was legal, and it was unfair to portray this as the Councillors fighting a losing battle.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1, but did remove the first article as a gesture of goodwill. It said that the article did not state that all the work on the property had taken place without planning permission, but instead that which it referred to in the previous line: “the development of a four-bedroom house into two dwellings, one with six-bedrooms and one with two, and a one-bedroom annexe in the back garden”, which readers would understand. It said that in 2012 an application was submitted and then withdrawn to change the use from a residential dwelling to a house of multiple occupancy with six lettable rooms. Also in 2012 permission was granted to use an existing annexe as a self-contained flat. It said that the annexe had been built without planning permission, and had been used as living accommodation for over four years, and therefore as the council had not known about it for four years, and was immune from an enforcement order and was granted permission. In November 2012 there was a retrospective application for change of use from a residential property to a house of multiple occupancy with five rentable rooms, and the house was already being used for this purpose without planning permission. The application was refused, appealed, and then dismissed. The publication said that its use as a house in multiple occupation continued, and the Council took enforcement action to stop this use in 2014. The publication also said that in 2014 an application was submitted to divide the house into three one bedroom flats, and to build a two storey extension, which was refused. It said that in 2019 a permitted Committee decision was given to allow a single storey conservatory with a two storey rear extension and insert windows to the side elevation of the original dwelling. The newspaper said that this was not done, and instead the complainant joined the garage to the flat, and therefore had to file a retrospective application for this. The publication said that in 2019 there was an application to convert the garage which was refused. Finally, the publication said that the complainant had made a retrospective application to use the converted garage as part of the existing first floor flat. On this basis it said that it was not inaccurate to report that the work described in the article had been carried out without planning permission. The publication noted the complainant’s position that the retroactive applications were for change of use, rather than planning permission, but said that this point was simply semantics and that applications for change of use could be described as seeking planning permission.

9. The publication said it was not inaccurate to report that protestors had said that the Town and Country Planning Act only allowed one chance at retrospective application, as this was something that protestors had said with regards to the application. It also noted that this was an accurate description of the Town and Country Planning Act. The publication stated that the term “second chance” was an accurate description of what had happened, that the complainant had an application refused, and then reapplied a second time. It did not agree that the article gave the impression that the complainant had received special treatment.

10. The publication noted that the campaign group’s website described itself as “a grassroots campaign to save the best of Milton Keynes from the worst of development.” It said on this basis, its description of the group as striving “to save Milton Keynes from bad development” was not inaccurate.

11. In the second article, the publication said that in light of the history of applications, it did not consider it inaccurate to report that there had been “a long history of planning issues”. It also said that its report of the meeting was accurate, it noted that the Councillors had been recommended to grant the application, but that there was a sense of frustration that they had to take that course. He said this was made clear by the comments of three Councillors that had been included in the article, which demonstrated their reluctance.

12. The complainant disputed the publication’s position that the planning application had been submitted retroactively, as it was not the planning permission, but the change of use that had been applied for retroactively. He said that all the development of the property had been legal and carried out with planning permission, or under permitted development where applicable, and that application for change of use is a completely different and separate legal matter.

13. Prior to IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered the complainant a right of reply.

Relevant Code Provisions

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

14. The article reported as fact that “all the work in the leafy cul-de-sac was carried out without planning permission”, however, the publication had accepted that there was planning permission, or permitted development, for some of the developments, but that retroactive applications had been made for the change of use. Where the article had not detailed that the complainant had gained planning permission or that the developments fell under permitted development, but had then had to apply for a change of use, it was misleading to state that “all of the work” was carried out “without planning permission”. The publication had knowledge of the relevant facts, and this was a failure to take care not to report information which was not misleading under Clause 1(i). Reporting that the complainant had developed his property without planning permission was a serious accusation, and was significant in an article about the planning application of the complainant. On this basis, a correction was required. The publication did not offer to publish a correction, and there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

15. The publication had accurately reported the protestor’s claims regarding the Town and Country Planning Act, and what the protestors had said was accurate and had thus taken care to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. Whilst the complainant had said this was not relevant as the section of the act did not apply in his case, where this had been reported accurately and was clearly attributed to the protestors, it was not misleading to include it. In addition, where the complainant was applying for the second time, it was not misleading to describe this as a “second chance”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

16. Where the campaign group described itself as “a grassroots campaign to save the best of Milton Keynes from the worst of development” it was not misleading for the article to describe it as striving to save “Milton Keynes from bad development”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The property had been the subject of planning applications, refusals of applications, and applications for change of use, in addition to the meeting the article was reporting on. On this basis, it was not significantly misleading to describe it as having “a long history of planning issues”. The article had also stated that the Council’s legal advice was to accept the application but that Councillors were “left straining to reject the application”. The article had contained quotations from some of the Councillors, such as “I don’t want to approve it”, which made clear that they were reluctant to accept the application. The article also recorded the decision to accept the application. On this basis, readers would not be misled as to what had happened in the meeting and there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

19. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

20. The Committee considered that the publication had not clearly reported what it had meant when reporting that all the work on the property had been completed without planning permission. In order to clarify the position of the development on the property, the Committee concluded that a correction was the appropriate remedy.

21. As the article had been deleted, the correction should appear as a standalone correction in the publication’s corrections and clarifications column and remain there indefinitely. This wording should only include information required to correct the inaccuracy: that the complainant had gained planning permission or developed his property under permitted development, but that had, in some cases, retrospectively applied for a change of use. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance, it should make clear and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

 

Date complaint received: 17/08/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 23/12/2020

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