Going underground in West Woodhay

The 21 September meeting of WBC’s Western Area Planning Committee covered three matters. Two of these I looked at last week (one related to Membury in the Lambourn area and one to Newbury, which also had an impact on a connected matter in Hungerford). The third (the second item discussed) concerned…well, I’ll quote the application summary in full…

“Section 73 variation/removal of condition 3 (approved plans) of approved 18/01441/HOUSE – Demolition of garden store. External alterations to the Eastern Pavilion including the provision of rooflights (Retrospective). Erection of new Western Pavilion to provide home office facilities at ground level, guest accommodation at first floor and a basement level garage.” Quite a mouthful.

There are a number of issues here, all of which were raised at the WAPC meeting (which you can see here, from 1’13”).

  • The first is that it’s not a normal consideration of a planning matter but the chance for WAPC to state what WBC’s position will be at the appeal. The reason there is an appeal is because the application (lodged in July 2021) was not decided and so failed through non-determination. The applicants are claiming that it should have been – and should now be – approved. Why it was not brought to WAPC before now is a mystery to me, though one I’m trying to solve.
  • The second is that there are aspects which involve retrospective approval. This is where, to put in bluntly, someone does what they want – even if no application has been made, or it has been refused – and then, if this becomes known, puts in an application to OK the work. This seems slightly like driving without insurance and then, if stopped by the gendarmes, agreeing to sort it out but otherwise facing no penalty. Some of the WAPC members were equally annoyed by this (as they should be).
  • The third is that the application included changes which were described as “minor material amendments” (which section 73 covers). Several WAPC members questioned whether something that increased the size of the previously agreed application by about three times could be regarded as minor. The main part of the development is, however, underground. It appears that WBC’s policies on such developments are not very specific. This matter could not be more than touched on at the meeting as its role is to consider applications according to current policies, not what policies might be worth introducing in light of the application.
  • The fourth is the question of the the potential light pollution used in the above-ground parts of the building. The expert reports said that the lighting did not exceed the E2 Zone requirements for this part of the AONB. However, it seemed there were no conditions as to what strength of light bulbs would be used. Even if there were, of course, the chances of any breaches being reported and acted on are virtually zero, due to the lack of planning enforcement officers. This is not something that the WAPC can control: rather it shows the almost total impotence that WBC as a planning authority has at ensuring that its specific conditions are adhered to.
  • The fifth is that several other matters, including the changes to the windows on the current pavilion, should have been subject to enforcement. See the last two sentences in the point above.
  • The sixth is that the whole thing could be a Trojan horse for a commercial development that bears no relationship to the applications previously submitted. This was referred to in passing by ward member James Cole and also developed (despite a warning from the Chair that she was “sailing a bit close to the wind”) by Councillor Carolyne Culver. The suggestion was that this new application is starting to look like a luxury spa. This question of a hypothetical end-point is beyond what a planning committee can consider.
  • The seventh is that the lack of a site visit (due to the mourning period following the death of the Queen) was criticised. I agree with the suggestion made that the meeting should have been postponed to allow members unfamiliar with the area to visit it: including, as the debate revealed, at night to judge the light-pollution issue.
  • The eighth (which was not directly covered at the meeting but suggested to me afterwards) is that all “major” applications need to be carbon-neutral. This one is major by every definition save the official planning one, so a bit more work is needed on bringing that into line with reality. WBC’s new local plan may also contain some tighter regulations which, if that is submitted before the appeal is heard, should provide extra protection. It certainly doesn’t seem that the proposed plans are carbon-neutral at present.

Two particular things struck me from all this.

The first is that the current planning system is imperfect in many ways but at least some provides kind of bastion against people with deep pockets being able to do what they want. Unfortunately, its rather supine acceptance of retrospective applications and, as this debate made clear, WBC’s own lack of policy on subterranean developments rather undermines this role.

The second is the question of incremental development, what might be termed a grandmother’s footsteps approach. This is where you apply for a series of small changes, none of which are in themselves able to be refused, so arriving at something quite different: which, were it to have been presented as that from the off, would have been subjected to proper scrutiny and conditions. Incremental planning is a long-term strategy and works well for those who can afford to stay in the game.

It’s important to understand that the planning system doesn’t exist just to create problems for entrepreneurs and that planning committees don’t exist just as something for councillors to do to fill their time on a Wednesday evening. They exist because there is a system to protect communities from unlawful, overbearing, illegal and environmentally-damaging development.

Some years ago I hailed a taxi in Soho and asked to be taken to Tulse Hill, where I then lived, The cabbie refused as it was too far. I the asked to be taken to Brixton, which was within his range. He refused that as well, on the grounds that he knew that it wasn’t where I wanted to go. He drove off and I was left dumbfounded in the rain. I later discovered he was within his rights: London taxis are only obliged (or were then, it may have changed) to take you to the first place you wanted to go to.

This logic might usefully be applied to planning matters. If a planning authority has reasonable grounds to believe that an application is only a stop on the road to something quite different rather than the final destination, it should have the power to demand that a masterplan be produced. If approved, no modifications would be entertained for, say, ten years. This would be a way of making the developer put their cards on the table and show that, despite the fact that they were currently bidding two clubs, they were actually aiming for a grand slam in diamonds. OK, that wouldn’t be fair if you were playing bridge: but planning decisions are not a game. If the system is going to work, then you need to give the people who administer it power to determine the outcome and anticipate any possible sub-texts  (and enforce the decisions that ensue). Otherwise, what’s the point?

Brian Quinn

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