In July 2013 John Collins, from a Planning Consultancy named John D Collins and Associates placed a double page centre spread advertisement in the Ashbourne News Telegraph. He also wrote a letter spelling out his views. His explanation was that he wanted local residents to be aware of exactly what was being proposed for his client’s site ASH3 which was the Leys Farm option.
What followed was so insulting to the intelligence of Ashbourne and personally insulting to a couple of its residents that I blogged about it at the time John Collins Blog and there were six complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (I wish I’d had the nous but I wasn’t one of them).
There is a huge amount of money involved in building 360 houses – for the owners of the land, for the lawyers and consultants attaching themselves to the “teams”, and for Derbyshire Dales District Council with the enormous Section 106 money which could come their way as a result of it. There are also interest groups galore who through fear or through personal loyalty have become involved. The methods are seldom explicit – there’ll be the occasional tactical letter from prominent grandees and business people in the newspaper. I’m actually grateful for the bumbling Mr Collins for highlighting the nature of propaganda because we can expect much more over the coming week and beyond. At least John D Collins and Associates’ actions have been uncovered.
John Collins approached the Ashbourne News Telegraph. He submitted the letter outlining his views and The Stunner, realising the inflammatory nature, rightly withheld his name and address. He then wanted to have his wider views published but the newspaper rightly told him they wouldn’t publish it word-for-word unless it was in the form of an advertisement. The article was published with ADVERTISEMENT FEATURE at the top but John Collins didn’t mention his name throughout. In his response to the ASA he argued that he had worked for the Derbyshire Dales District Council for 20 years (could this be the same John Collins who appeared on planning notices in the 1990s alongside Paul Wilson?) and it was very rare for the Committee to vote against the recommendations of the officers on Local Plan matters. The crux of his advertisement seemed to be based on the premise that Ashbourne had been hoodwinked by a well organised campaign by members of “Ash Aware”. There is an intriguing reference to an email he had from an “Officer in the Local Plan team” in which they stated that the decision to demote ASH3 was the result of concerns regarding the possible adverse environmental impact that the development might have had, and of alleged flooding problems on the site. Strange that John Collins didn’t attend the meeting and strange that a DDDC Officer would attempt to interpret the Council Members’ motives.
The ASA ruled on the case this week. The verdict found that the advertisement breached the advertising standards code in seven out of the eight objections raised. The full verdict is here John D Collins verdict. The ASA made the following judgements.
1. By concealing that the advertisement was by the owners of one of the sites the ad was misleading. The call to action was to write to the DDDC Planning Office and the ASA believe readers would act differently if they thought the advertisement was from someone with a commercial interest.
2. By not indicating clearly enough in the design that the piece was an advertisement (the font of the ADVERTISEMENT FEATURE inserted at Ashbourne News Telegraph’s insistence was only slightly larger than the surrounding text) and by the style of the article the ad breached codes on Recognition of Marketing Communications.
3. John Collins had insufficient evidence to back up the allegations that the decision of the Council members to overturn the Planning Officer’s recommendations was significantly a result of Ash Aware (has it ever been anything other than Peter Fox’s Ashbourne Aware newsletter?). The ad therefore breached the code on the grounds of Misleading Advertising and Substantiation.
4. This is an interesting one considering the argument over the airfield. John Collins made the statement “WERE YOU TOLD THE TRUE FACTS? READ THIS AND MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND”, “MISCONCEPTION 1: ASH1, THE AIRFIELD, IS A WORTHLESS, DERELICT BROWNFIELD SITE”. There really was that amount of capitalisation. The ASA said that this inferred to readers that the Derbyshire Dales District Council had mistakenly designated the site as entirely brownfield. They noted that there had been no legal designation at the time of the article and therefore any claim to the contrary could not be substantiated. Lobbyists on both sides could take note.
5. The ASA felt that the advertisement suggested that “Ash Aware” had claimed the development on ASH3 would create flooding problems and that the new housing would be occupied by “newcomers”. Again this was found to be misleading and could not be substantiated.
6. Another point for this current campaign: the ASA found that John Collins had portrayed Peter Banks in a negative light and used a derogatory tone. Mr Banks had not given his permission to be named in the advertisement. This was a breach of the code on the grounds of Privacy.
7. Mr Collins was supported in his defence of referring to the people living on The Shires as NIMBYs. There had been an objection that it referred to the wider “Ash Aware well organised members”.
As I stated previously. I am very pleased that this has come to light as we go into a week of further consultation about the Airfield development. Hopefully some of the people involved will think more carefully about the way they express their views. I am very conscious that I am part of the opinion. I’m not a professional planner, I’m not being paid by anyone and I’m not a councillor, consultant, member of a political party, know any of the landowners concerned or their representatives. I’m not a member of the Neighbourhood Plan team or Ashbourne Aware (if indeed such a membership exists). I am affected by the developments but I am not a NIMBY – I’m a YIMBYMCCBA (Yes in my back yard. My concerns can be addressed). I rely on the same levels of information which are accessible by the public. My views are tagged as Opinion and they are open to critique and feedback. I do think there are some great opportunities for compromise which I discussed here The Importance Of The Ashbourne Yes.
The outline planning permission is available to read online. There are lots of documents which have done the hard work on the issues of access, drainage, environmental issues, site plans, clarification of which parishes include the land, how many houses are planned to be built. There is no need for the wild speculation and smearing which people are resorting to. The next stage ought to be a review of the information presented rather than a call to the streets for a rabble armed with pitchforks and braziers to keep out the invading hordes. The planning reference is 14/0007 OUT and the documents are here 14/0007 Outline Planning Documents. Just click on the “View Associated Documents” link and they will all appear in a new window. It’s the only way to avoid the spin and opinion.
As for Mr Collins, whoever he is or whatever his background, sadly his only punishment is that he can’t use the advertisement again and he must comply with the code in future. I don’t know whether he has collected his fee from his client or not and I don’t know his former employer Derbyshire Dales District Council feel about being brought into the debate. I suspect this episode won’t appear on his resumé and we won’t see him in Ashbourne any time soon.