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You can't even break even [Sep. 25th, 2017|05:48 pm]
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This is one of those boring posts - in this case about local planning issues - that I write because I want a record of something. I don't expect anyone else to be interested.

In December 2012, I attended a meeting of the County Council's Planning Committee which gave consent for a development on a garden just down the hill from us. Technically, the developer already had planning consent, but since he had not built within three years, this had lapsed; the planning committee renewed consent for a further three years. I wasn't happy with the decision, and I wasn't happy at the way it was taken, but that's all in my earlier post, so I won't repeat it. Anyway, nothing happened, and we - a number of local residents, including [personal profile] durham_rambler and myself - were optimistic, especially when the renewed time limit expired and the council introduced an interim policy to control studentification. And when a new application was submitted last summer to build student housing on the site, it was indeed turned down.

That application was refused on January 11th 2017; but meanwhile, on January 3rd, a 'new' and 'amended' application was submitted, very similar to the previous one. But instead of three houses, each to be shared between six students, the plan was now for a block of 12 flats with the appearance of three houses, each now containing three two-bedroom and one one-bedroom flat (a two-bedroom flat on each floor, including the basement, and a one-bedroom flat in the attic) with the result that the proposed population density was even higher. These cosy apartments were now described as "high end accommodation for young professionals" - though what makes them 'high end' is not specified, and must reside in the finish rather than any spaciousness in the design. And that's twelve flats with two parking spaces between them, no residents' parking permits to be issued. In other words, it was hard to imagine the claimed target market being interested.

Things went very quiet for a long time, and I hoped that the planning department was trying to persuade the applicant to go for something more plausible (I know. Unrealistic optimism.) but eventually the application came to committee last Tuesday, with a recommendation from the Case Officer to approve.

Which the Committee obediently did. I talked last time about the way procedure assumes the impartiality of the Planning Officers, but the running of the system results in their acting as advocate for one side or other of the debate, and I won't repeat that. But I thought that specific things happened at the committee which, whether or not this was the intention, favoured the applicant and disadvantaged the objectors.

Here's the procedure. The Case Officer speaks first, and has as much time as it takes. They also have the right to reply to what other speakers say. The Ward Councillor follows, and when I've been to Committees in the past, they too have been allowed to speak as long as they wished; but this is at the Chairman's discretion, and on this occasion he informed our councillor she had five minutes (she's a very new councillor; I don't know if this is relevant. Anyway, she made the point she wanted to within the time limit, so it doesn't matter). The objector(s) speak next, and they have five minutes between them, so it makes sense to have one person speak for all. The applicant speaks last, which gives them the advantage of having heard any objections (actually, given that someone has to go first and someone last, I think that's fair enough). Finally, the Committee have their discussion and vote.

A number of residents had met the morning before the Committee, and briefed our representative. We phoned the Case Officer in advance: for one thing, having pointed out to the council thst part of their case would be affected by a government White Paper which had just been issued, we wanted to know if the hearing would go ahead. For another, we wanted to warn her that a key point of our case was that the plans as published did not make suitable provision for waste and recycling (there were bin stores for all the flats at the backs of the houses, but only the basement flat had access to the rear; everyone else would have to carry their waste out of the front door and down the steps to the back; then, since recycling is collected from the front street, they would all have to lug their recycling bins back up the steps to the street). It seemed only fair to assume that she wasn't familiar with the specific arrangements for the Avenue - and objectors had, in the past, been pulled up by the chair for introducing new matter in committee, so better safe than sorry.

At the Committee, the Case Officer spoke to her report, which didn't cover this point; the Ward Councillor spoke briefly; the objectors' representative spoke as agreed. Then, and only then, did the Case Officer decide to mention that she had consulted colleagues, and provision for waste would not be as shown in the plan (and spelled out in the original planning application): instead each flat would be given a recycling bag and box to be placed in front of the property on the collection day. The objectors' representative raised his hand, but was given no opportunity to respond to this new information. Finally, the applicant's agent spoke. He didn't say much (and he didn't need to, as the Case Officer had made his argument for him) but he emphasised that he had consulted local estate agents who confirmed that the development would be marketable to young professionals. We should probably have seen this coming: a passage in the Case Officer's report headed 'Applicants Statement' included the words "after extensive consultation with local estate agents a new scheme has now been designed ...". He didn't present any evidence, and I have since checked the documents on the council website, and can't find any evidence there, either. There followed a brief discussion between the members of the committee, some of whom raised queries to which the Case Officer responded, but at least one of whom asked for confirmation that the development would appeal to professionals, to which the applicants agent was allowed to respond, reiterating his assertion that this was the case, in the opinion of local estate agents (many of whom are also in the student letting business, but never mind). After which the committee voted by a substantial majority to approve.

I don't think the two sides were given equal opportunities to make their case; I'm particularly angry that residents were not permitted to address a change in the proposed arrangements which was known to officers before the start of the meeting. But I don't suppose it made any difference to to the final decision, which we had rather expected to go against us. That being so, residents had asked that if consent was granted, conditions should be placed on the development to ensure that it was managed as promised: a minimum age limit, say, of the sort imposed elsewhere on flats intended as retirement homes. Oh, no, said the legal officer, that wasn't possible. Really, if we insist on living on campus, what do we expect?

Don't think I've been brooding over this post for the whole of the last week; part of the last week, yes, but it's also been a long time in the writing because D. has been visiting us, and we've been going out and having fun. So the next post will be more entertaining - or at least better illustrated!

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.