Injustice in Carmarthenshire: council maligns complainants as problems are swept under the carpet
by Pat Dodd Racher, October 19th 2012
Walking by on the other side is a fast track to injustice. You pretend nothing is wrong, you pass by and avert your eyes. Individuals do it, organisations do it, and Carmarthenshire Council is highly accomplished at it.
Carmarthenshire Council has ignored complaints by decreeing they are not relevant, outside the frame of reference, not council business. This excuse, it’s none of our business, was brandished in the case of Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts, Pantycastell Fach, Maesybont in Carmarthenshire.
The case, involving a draining, heart-breaking dispute between neighbours – Trisha and Eddie on one side, Andrew Thomas and his late wife Karen Bowen Thomas on the other – is chronicled elsewhere. The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, found the council guilty of maladministration. The council’s officers have sat on his report since July. Councillors have not, at the time of writing, been able to discuss it. This is quite normal in Carmarthenshire, where officers decide if councillors have a ‘need to know’. There is no right of access to information.
The culture of secrecy creates the conditions in which injustices can multiply. And they do.
Trisha and Eddie moved to Pantycastell Fach from Sussex in 2003, believing their neighbours, Andrew Thomas and Karen Bowen Thomas, to be farmers. By all accounts Karen loved horses, and kept them, but their property, Blaenpant, was also an industrial base for a haulage business. Trisha and Eddie did not know because no planning permission existed for a change of use from agriculture to industry.
Karen Bowen Thomas ran KBHS Ltd, which has a website stating the company’s base as Blaenpant Farm, and describing a large contract undertaken in 2002 for the removal of 120,000 cubic metres of material over a 13-week period. The products and services listed include demolition, excavation, groundworks, scrap metal and tipper hire. This is an industrial operation, open seven days a week, Monday to Sunday, and not light industrial either.
Seventeen planning applications* relating to Blaenpant, between 1998 and 2011, are recorded in Carmarthenshire’s planning department. Not one of them applies for any industrial activity. All but one are ‘agricultural’ or ‘agricultural/equestrian’ in nature. The first application (E/01257), dated August 21st 1998 and from Mr R Jones, was to convert a farm building into a dwelling. This was refused. The next application (TG/01947), on July 26th 2002 and by Karen Bowen Thomas, was a prior notification of permitted agricultural or forestry development, and the planning department decided that the work, to level the land on top of an old quarry, could go ahead without any planning permission.
A few days later, on July 31st 2002, another quite small application (TG/02011) was received, for a new access from the public road, and was approved. After a gap of 18 months, on January 23rd 2004, Karen Bowen Thomas submitted a further notification of permitted development for agriculture or forestry (E/05992), this time to import about 500 tons of subsoil and topsoil. Planning officers agreed that this was indeed permitted development.
In April 2004 came another notification (E/06708) for intended permitted development, for an agricultural implement store and hay shed, 99 feet by 50 feet. This did not get the go-ahead, and Karen Bowen Thomas was told to submit a formal planning application. She did so in July, asking (E/07519) for a store for farm machinery and hay, but the planning committee said no. The refusal letter, from Head of Planning Eifion Bowen, explained that there was “insufficient justification for the proposed development at this location due to the lack of agricultural activity at the farm unit” and also because the applicant had failed to demonstrate that the shed was reasonably necessary for agriculture.
So back in 2004 the council was well aware of a lack of agricultural activity at Blaenpant.
Karen Bowen Thomas appealed, and probably to the annoyance of the county council, the appeal was upheld. The shed was built, with the help of another permitted development (E/09576) from the council, for the excavation of quarry overburden and rock and the use of the material for levelling the ground on which the building would be constructed.
Next, in October 2005, Mr and Mrs Thomas applied (E/11544) to convert a former cowshed to a farm office and tack room, and received permission. In August 2006, they applied (E/14109) for a detached garage, which was allowed. They were not so fortunate with a much larger application (E/14145) the same month, for a cow shed 97 feet by 30 feet, which was refused for the same reasons as the agricultural implement store two years earlier: lack of agricultural activity and no demonstrable need for a large cow shed.
After a minor application (E/14648) for roof alterations on another building, which was approved, the cow shed application was resubmitted in all but name, this time (E/17981) as a notification of permitted development and in the guise of a hay and implement shed, a little smaller at 78 feet by 30 feet. This would be the second large implement and hay store, on a farm where there was a “lack of agricultural activity”. The planning department agreed that this was indeed permitted agricultural development not requiring planning permission.
The first and second buildings had a total length of 177 feet, and sufficient indoor space to store a substantial number of tractors or other vehicles. Look on Google Earth’s Street View – the post code for the applications, SA14 7SW, is noted on the planning applications and is thus in the public domain – and see what you think. The complex would be far less noticeable if it were screened with trees, and if attractively landscaped could look smart on an industrial estate, but it is not located on a business park. The Google date is given as January 1st 2009, but it must be summer because the trees are in full leaf. The home of Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts is immediately to the south, accessed by a track which crosses Blaenpant land. Google Earth also has an aerial view of the same site, without one of the long buildings, in 2006.
The applications continued. In January 2008 Mr and Mrs Thomas requested permitted development rights (E/18176) for a new road, opening into the access track to Trisha Breckman’s and Eddie Roberts’ home. Planners told them that formal permission would be necessary, and the road was not constructed.
Later the same year, in September, Mr and Mrs Thomas asked (E/19928) for a replacement agricultural building, which was allowed as the footprint was only slightly larger than the existing structure. In July 2009 Mr Thomas, who by now was sadly bereaved, applied retrospectively (E/21494) for a hardstanding area adjoining the Carmel Transmitter Mast, for the “parking and storage of agricultural vehicles and implements”, but this was turned down and the subsequent appeal was dismissed.
In rejecting the application, the planning team revealed some knowledge about the nature of activities at Blaenpant, stating “It is acknowledged that the farm complex is occasionally utilised to park some of the applicant’s haulage vehicles”, but justified this as “permitted under the provisions of the General Permitted Development Order”. This is a long document but Part 4, Class B, states that “the use of any land for any purpose for not more than 28 days in total in any calendar year” is permitted. The applicant’s undoing was the fact that the storage area by the mast had already been hard-surfaced, and was being used for parking vehicles, storage containers and a “considerable amount of deposited materials”, and so planners concluded the development was “excessive in scale particularly due to the lack of existing agricultural activity currently taking place on the land”.
Finally, in November 2011, Mr Thomas received permission (E/25234) for changing the use of one building from agriculture to mixed equine stabling and agriculture, and for the parking of equestrian vehicles, and (E/25246) also for resurfacing an access to fields with clean stone.
Carmarthenshire County Council allowed a haulage business to use agricultural permissions to expand quite dramatically into a substantial industrial site: this is what the evidence says to me. The large number of separate applications did not help the planners, because the industrialisation was incremental and over time rather than all at once. When the council turned down applications, the reasons for refusal show that officers knew the developments were not for agriculture, but neither did they accept Trisha Breckman’s and Eddie Roberts’ complaints. Instead, as documented by the BBC, they turned on the complainants, blacklisted them and restricted their access to councillors. Now Plaid Cymru are calling for a public inquiry into the actions of Carmarthenshire’s planning department.
Where are the councillors in this story? In a supporting role, far from centre stage. That is a big part of the problem. The officers are technical professionals, charged with day-to-day operations and not strategy or even major decision-making, but the council constitution – approved by a majority of councillors, sadly – places control of information in the paid officers’ hands, and reduces councillors to supplicants.
It is even more vital now for councillors to be aware of all the facts and to have the power to act on them, because many officers are under significant pressure due to budget cutbacks.
Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts are victims of the council’s initial belief that Blaenpant was an ordinary farm, and of the determination to cling on to that belief in public when officers’ responses to the applications for big new buildings show their awareness that Blaenpant was definitely not an ordinary farm. They are also victims of the very common shoot-the-messenger syndrome. When you don’t want to deal with bad news, you might yell at the messenger, even land a right hook and floor him, because doing that seems a whole lot easier, and more immediately satisfying, than resolving the underlying issue.
So, councillors, please don’t put up with being the supporting cast, we need you to take decisions based on a knowledge of facts that is as full as possible. This sad story is a reminder that messengers bring information that may be critically important, and in this case Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts did just that, only to find themselves vilified and marked out as serial complainers, as the council swept the real issues under the carpet.
*The application numbers are E/01257, TG/01947, TG/02011, E/05992, E/06708, E/07519, E/09576, E/11544, E/14109, E/14145, E/14648, E/17981, E/18176, E/19928, E/21494, E/25234 and E/25246