Puzzled at Planning

At a Planning Committee Meeting today I discovered that one government body had disposed of a piece of government property to another government body, for a value “not available” on the Land Registry website, with the simple intention of getting that land planning permission in order to sell or transfer it on to another developer.

At that same Planning Committee, despite my strenuous appeals that the Committee should not allow that very piece of land to be overdeveloped at a density of housing nearly double the average for similar land across County Durham, I watched one councillor propose the planning application “with regret” and another councillor second it “with regret”. It was passed.

And why the regret? It appeared that both the proposer and seconder of the application felt that 20 dwellings on the former Magistrates Court on Ashdale Road, Consett, were too many for the size of the plot, but felt that they had no alternative but to support the application.

I reach that conclusion because the same councillors had just voted against a proposal to defer a decision and seek a re-negotiation of the number of dwellings.

For the record 1: The average density of housing on previously developed land across England (including the densely populated areas in and around London) is 37 dwellings per hectare. The average in County Durham is 21.

The proposal for Consett Magistrates Court is 39 dwellings per hectare. That’s nearly twice the county average.

For the Record 2: I have put in a Freedom of Information Request to “Homes England”, the current owners of the land, to find out how much they “paid” for it.

I think it’s in the public interest to know what the magistrates court was worth before it had planning permission, and how much it becomes worth with planning permission.

It’s not over yet: Today’s meeting contained a number of assurances that this was only an “in principle” decision, called “reserved matters”. The developer, whoever that may turn out to be, will have to convince the planners and committee of their detailed proposals.

If their proposal is for twenty homes they’ll have some difficulty in convincing me.

The law is an ass

Mr Bumble says so and so do I.

Today at the planning committee we found ourselves in a position where we either agreed to grant a Certificate of Lawful Development, or risk making the council subject to an expensive legal case which it would almost certainly lose. And the subject?

Back in 1973 Stanley Urban District Council approved a planning application for four dwellings on a site in Burnopfield. Only three were built and now, forty years later, an applicant wants to erect the fourth. No matter that planning law has moved on, that the climate has changed, the roads become busier and – in short – that it’s extremely unlikely that this planning permission would be granted today. Apparently the law is such that, provided the development was started by December 1978, its completion can occur at any date in the future. That is, of course, unless the Martians or anyone else repeal our laws.

The case came to committee three weeks ago and I was so disbelieving I asked for us to be given training in this aspect of law before we made a decision. We got the training from an independent barrister and in particular I noted two details word for word:

  • A developer can come back at any stage and complete the development
  • There is no doctrine of abandonment

That’s why I had to vote for us to grant the certificate.

It’s pretty objectionable to find yourself forced to vote for something you consider plain wrong – but convinced that do do anything else is to breach the law. The right next step has to be to get the law changed, but as usual even that would be a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Keep up the pressure

That’s the message from tonight’s Durham Plan session at St Pat’s Church Hall.

There were three improvements in the version of the Durham Plan as presented from my point of view.

  1. 5 hectares of employment land is back in the plan on the Hownsgill site after previously being de-allocated
  2. No houses are now planned to be built at Berry Edge Farm on the way out of Consett
  3. There is now only half the density of housing that was previously planned for the addition to the Links Estate (30 houses instead of 60).

But the word is, don’t rest on your laurels if you’ve been one of those feeding into the plan. The plan could still change in the months ahead before it goes to the Secretary of State, and developers and landowners are still in a position to push forward their point of view.

So if you applaud the extra employment land allocation, write to CDPconsultation@durham.gov.uk and tell them so, telling them your reasons and that you don’t accept that the only future for Consett is as a dormitory town.

If you are pleased that the planners have decided to remove the housing at Berry Edge Farm on the edge of Consett, spreading the town out into the countryside, write to CDPconsultation@durham.gov.uk and tell them so, adding whatever particular reasons you want to.

If you live on the Links Estate and are unhappy at the houses they have planned onto the end of Muirfield Close, tell them so at CDPconsultation@durham.gov.uk . Tell them that you think they still haven’t given enough protection to the natural beauty and woodland in the area, that have not taken account of the potential flooding issues or the additional traffic on the estate roads.

And while you are at it, if you share my view that their obsession with knocking down County Hall to create an Aykley Heads commercial super-site (and presumably build an expensive new Council Palace somewhere else in Durham) will do nothing for Consett or other outlying areas of the county, let them hear that too.

At the moment, this does look like one consultation where at least some local views have been taken into account, and well done the planners for that. However, keeping up the pressure till the plan is actually sent away has to be the best policy at present.

Get ready for very slow moving traffic

There will be plenty of it between Durham and Consett next summer.

I went to the County Planning Meeting today to speak up as a local member. I approve of the proposal for an anaerobic digester to be built beside the Thomas Swan plant as a way for an important and successful local business to secure its future energy supplies, and am convinced that most of the fears originally expressed in some parts of the community will prove to be unfounded. One fear, however, I think is very real.

The material the plant will use will be freshly harvested green crops, and two thirds of the trips bringing it will be hauled a distance of up to 10 miles in tractors and trailers. Tractors have a legal maximum speed on the highway of 20 mph or, if the rare super-fast models, 25 mph. That seriously worries me – partly as a regular user of the road, but more for the economic welfare of our area.

We have some of the poorest road links available to a small town seeking to attract inward investment in County Durham. We are more than a dozen miles from the A1, and if those miles are to be travelled at 20 mph it’s going to be at a real economic cost to every manufacturer in this town, as well as to the major haulage company based here. I made that case, arguing that if the materials for the digester were required to be carried in lorries instead, it would reduce the total number of vehicle trips by a third and the trips would be made at a much more acceptable speed. We may resent being stuck behind a truck doing 45-50 mph, but it’s not a major problem. It is a problem at 20 mph, and even more of a problem will be the frustrated drivers who go to overtake at unsuitable places. The Planning Committee today had an opportunity to impose rules to mitigate this. Instead it chose to ignore it.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have a committee accepting an officer talking about “one tractor per hour” when the papers in front of that committee specify that there are to be 40 tractors a day. Mind you, it’s all frustration when you feel that a meeting comprises members who neither know your area nor care that much about it.

And so the proposal was passed, without even the restriction on hours of delivery recommended by the Pollution Team. Remember next year as you curse on your way to work, or on your way home; you read it here first.

Planning Appeals allowed

I’ve always thought that planning applications are a bit of a one way street. If your planning application is turned down you have a fairly straightforward right of appeal – though it will often go against you. Also, if one application fails, within limits, you can revamp it and go again.

If, on the other hand, you oppose a planning application but the application is accepted, you have no right of appeal. Your only way to over-turn such a decision is by Judicial Review – not a route many people are prepared to take given both the expense and the uncertainty of the process.

I’m just reminded of that because in the next planning meeting we’ll be informed about two cases in this county council division where the original planning application was turned down, the applicant appealed, and having had their appeal upheld the matter will almost certainly be closed in their favour.

The two applications that have been appealed successfully are both on Medomsley Road.

Neither had been to the planning committee for decision – both had been decided by planning officers as a “delegated decision”.

The first was for an extension of a garden on the Fairways Estate into the farmland that borders it. The local authority had declined the retrospective application (an application for something that has already been done without the required permission), arguing that the garden encroached into open countryside and broke the continuity of the existing boundary lines. The Planning Inspector rejected those reasons on the grounds that, in his opinion the other garden boundaries to the various properties along this edge take different forms, including planting and fencing of differing age and finish so that in his view is that there is very little uniformity to this particular boundary. He took the view that the garden extension did no material harm to the character or appearance of the adjacent field and was not an unacceptable encroachment into the openness of this part of the countryside. The extended garden can therefore stay.

The second appeal related to an application to turn the old Social Services and Registrar’s Office on Medomsley Road (almost opposite the bus station) into a two bedroom bungalow and a hot food take-away. Planners had wanted to restrict the opening hours to 8am to 12 midnight Monday to Saturday and 8am to 11pm Sunday. They argued that this was needed to protect the “amenity” of nearby properties. The Planning Inspector took the view that this was a commercial area and decided a different time limit restricted to 0800 to midnight Sunday to Thursday and 0800 to 0300 the following morning on Fridays and Saturdays. These revised hours are what will apply if the development happens.


Planning applications

There are currently several local planning applications of a commercial nature in for consideration.

One is to convert a terraced house in Derwent Street into a podiatry/chiropody clinic. Another is to extend the time limit for a planning application for the site at the traffic lights at the intersection of Medomsley Road and Hartington Street, and a third is to create a gymnasium on the first floor of 5 Front Street.

Every week planning applications like this come up and there is a requirement for them to be advertised in their locality. What you may not know, however, is that every week a list of all applications in County Durham is put on the county website, and you can view the individual applications online at http://www.durham.gov.uk/Pages/Service.aspx?ServiceId=6321

It’s a really useful service if you want to check out planning applications you have seen advertised without having to go into the council offices.

That sign


The county council’s retrospective application for planning permission for the two signs at Belle Vue has now been lodged on the system with the reference number 1/2010/0257 and can be viewed at Consett Civic Centre. It can also be viewed online by visiting www.durham.gov.uk then selecting Environment and planning, then online planning access, then Planning, then Online planning applications (public access), then Public Access – Consett Area Office, then putting the reference number 1/2010/0257 into the search field and clicking the “SEARCH” button. It does work! I’ve tried it.

Anyone wishing to object to permission being given for this sign should raise any planning objection(s) with the officer dealing with it,  louisa.ollivere[at]durham.gov.uk . Please note that all you need is a brief letter or email with planning objections of which the two most obvious may be considered to be:

  • Loss of visual amenity. Can the pleasant aspect of this land be other than diminished by positioning a hoarding on it?
  • A previous planning application for a telephone mast and cabinet on this roundabout was rejected by Derwentside District Council in March 2009 as being unsuitable for this “gateway site” to Consett. Was that proposal more damaging to the appearance of the site than this sign?

If you are unsure about what constitutes a valid planning objection there is a very good summary here.

P.S. I’m not sure whether it is a valid objection that the sign itself is sited in an area which the council has promised will not be built on. You need to remember that, despite many objections, outline planning permission was given for the entire site, right up to Villa Real Road.

Tesco application Planning Meeting “pulled”

Tomorrow’s Durham County Council Planning Meeting, where the only application to be considered was the application to build a new Tesco store in Consett, has been cancelled at the last minute, apparently for legal reasons.

This decision coincides with councillors on that committee receiving copies of a letter from planning consultants acting for the only recorded objectors to the proposal, Morrisons the supermarket chain, raising a number of alleged inadequacies in the report provided to the Planning Committee.

Such a last minute withdrawal of an application which has been hanging around for over a year is both surprising and concerning.

A comment on this site posted last night points up some of the issues that should underlie the decision.

Back in March 2009, planning officers at Derwentside originally recommended that the application be refused – led by the same officer who wrote the current report for Durham County Council – but at that time district councillors in their last ever meeting of Derwentside’s Planning Committee overturned four officers’ recommendations in a single afternoon in an unusually “rebellious” meeting. The Tesco decision was amongst them.

That’s one aspect. Another is the £400,000 payment detailed in the report which is supposed to be made to help the town centre compete effectively. The terms of that need to be clearly spelt out, with as little wriggle room as possible for the county council. It would not be acceptable for it to be spent retrospectively on consultants. Nor, in my book, would it be acceptable for it to be spent on future consultants. People are looking for money to be spent on Consett. Not on consultants.

I am on record as backing the Tesco store – and simultaneously demanding investment into running the town centre effectively (particularly in relation to car-parking) to ensure that town centre businesses can compete with Tesco on a level playing field. I hope that the delay which has occurred in the process will enable that right balance to be struck.

A foregone conclusion

The result at today’s county Planning Committee was entirely predictable. There is documentary evidence that the Labour Group at County Hall voted unanimously in favour of using Belle Vue for the Academy site even before the Cabinet made its decision last July.

Today the Labour county councillors on the county Planning Committee voted to give outline planning permission for that academy and leisure centre to be built on Belle Vue.

I was immensely impressed by the well put together arguments of the nine local objectors who spoke. I was equally depressed by the cynical attempts of some supporters of the application to imply that the objectors were against the investment in education and leisure in Consett. “Location, location, location,” was how one objector put it. “No-one is against investing £45 million in Consett; just against spending it in the wrong place.”

Some readers will have heard on the radio the “barney” which followed the meeting. The participants were a senior current county council Labour policitician and an equally senior former district council Labour politician. It only goes to show that the choice of site for the new school is not, and should not be, a party political issue. The real disgrace is that no-one who has watched the process believes that it has been aimed at meeting the wishes and expectations of the people of Consett. You, we, are not important.

So the issue will rumble on to the inquiry into the Village Green application for the Belle Vue fields. The best we can hope for is that the people who go to that, supporters and opponents of the village green, believe that their arguments will be listened to impartially, analysed and weighed. That, at least, would be a “first” for them.

Watch democracy in action

It’s important that people watch decision making processes – witnesses are always valuable – so I hope that plenty of people from Consett will take the chance to watch the Planning Committee of Durham County Council deliberate on the Academy and Sports Centre “outline planning application” to build the Academy on Belle Vue.

It’s fortunate that I’m not a member of that committee because any member who has made their mind up before the meeting (it’s called pre-determination) is barred from voting in the meeting. That’s why I had to step outside when the report on the village green enquiry was taking place a week or two ago in the licensing committee.

As a local member, however, I will be able to put residents’ case to the committee and I shall do just that.

Anyone who wants to is free to watch the meeting on Tuesday March 9th at County Hall starting at 2.00 p.m. in the council chamber.