Impartiality in Carmarthenshire? Not for every Tom, Dick and Harry
Councillors in Carmarthenshire have pressed officials to trawl through a gamut of planning policies to find reasons/ excuses for them to reject recommendations made by those same officials.
Two examples from the county council’s planning committee this week:
The first relates to a plan for a roomy new farmhouse for Mr Brian Walters, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW), whose farms include Clunmelyn, Ffynnonddrain, and Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road. The two are about two and a half miles apart by road. Mr Walters and Mrs Ann Walters farm some 500 acres with their sons Aled and Seimon. They are dairy farmers with a herd of 200 cows, 200 followers, and about 40 beef cattle, according to the biography released by the FUW. Mr Walters is a chapel deacon, and offers work experience to agricultural students.
The new farmhouse will be – for councillors have given permission – at Esgairhir Uchaf. The building will be over 40% larger than and about 40 metres away from the existing one, which is currently unoccupied and would be demolished. There will be a requirement to demolish, although the local county councillor, Irfon Jones (Independent, Cynwyl Elfed) saw no reason to impose this condition. Several councillors spoke in support of the application. Tom Theophilus (Independent, Cilycwm) said the location of the new house would be safer because it is 40 metres from the farmyard. Joseph Davies (Indpependent, Manordeilo and Salem) and Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) both thoroughly supported the application. Ken Howell (Plaid Cymru, Llangeler) said he was disappointed with the attitude of the planning officer who recommended refusal. The new house would be easier to heat and less draughty, he said.
Councillors overruled the planning officer, who recommended refusal because the design of the new house would not be appropriate for the location, or to the character of the area. The scale, mass and design features of the house would have “suburban connotations” at odds with its location in open countryside.
Now that the committee has decided to allow the house, the planning department will have to find some small print in a planning policy somewhere which can be used to support a substantial new house, with 309 square metres of floor area, sited away from existing buildings.
Not one councillor asked if a pedestrian path linked the new house with the nearest village, or if it was served by public transport.
Yet these were the reasons found by planning officers to try and justify councillors’ refusal of an application they had been recommended to approve, because it met all the requirements of the policy under which it was submitted.
While an application from a man of considerable local renown, and a pillar of the farming establishment, met with councillors’ approval against the advice of the planning officer, an application from relative newcomers to the area, made under the One Wales One Planet sustainable development policy of the Welsh Government, was turned down flat although they were advised to approve it because it ticked all the boxes of the policy.
The reasons which councillors gave for rejecting Dr Erica Thompson’s application for a mini eco-hamlet at Rhiw Las, near Llanboidy, included personal opinions that occupants would fail to make a sufficient living, that they could live elsewhere and work on the land during the day, that it would encourage similar applications, and that it was too far from a village. In the end, planning officers extracted three policies from the 2014 Carmarthenshire Local Development Plan and applied them to the One Planet policy in such a way as to make it very unlikely that any One Planet application for a rural location could ever be approved in the county.
The proposed site for the venture is inadequately served by an integrated transport network catering for pedestrians, cyclists and public-transport users, and so conflicts with policy GP1 of the Local Development Plan, planning officers suggested. The site also conflicts with policy TR2, at least officers thought it might, again because it is deemed too remote from public transport, and is accessed from a road which lacks a pedestrian pathway. Policy TR3 was also cited, requiring public transport to be accessible.
None of these transport issues were raised by committee members during the discussion about the new farmhouse, which is in just as rural a location.
The decisions to allow a big new house for a well-known farmer, against professional advice, and to refuse an eco-hamlet of four dwellings and land-based businesses for “Toms, Dicks and Harrys”, as one councillor supposed, also against professional advice, suggests that decision making by the planning committee is not as consistently impartial and even-handed as it should be!
The Esgairhir Uchaf planning application is W/32578. The Rhiw Las application is W/31160.