Inconsistent Planning Decisions Damage Public Confidence
Strange inconsistencies in decisions made by Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department highlight both the tangled complexity of planning regulations and a tendency not to challenge – -at least, not to challenge early enough – planning contraventions which could consume large quantities of the department’s time and resources, or disturb councillors’ personal views of how the world should work.
All except one of the decisions/non-decisions in the table below have received wide press coverage. The exception, a stable block by a roadside hedge in Crugybar, is 94 feet long and over 24 feet wide and serves Caer Onnen, an equestrian smallholding of just under 12 acres. These examples represent some of the planning contradictions which perplex the public — not to mention the impact on unsuccessful applicants.
Inconsistent or what?
|Stable block by roadside hedge at Crugybar (E/29504)||Field shelter by roadside hedge at Broad Oak (E/31647)||Operation of haulage business without permission, Maesybont|
|Agricultural buildings on holding with minimal agriculture, Maesybont (numerous, see here)||Four smallholdings in accordance with the Wales Government’s ‘One Planet’ policy, near Llanboidy (W/31160)||Destruction of part of Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation|
|House 40 metres from a farmyard containing an unoccupied house, Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road (W/32578)||Solar panels on a barn adjacent to a listed house, Brechfa (E/31647)|
A few miles west at Broad Oak, Andrew and Meg-Anne Redman failed to get permission to retain a field shelter, also set alongside a hedge, on the grounds that the land it was on totalled only 6.2 acres and so it would not be large enough for viable agriculture. On the basis of the permission granted at Crugybar for a very large structure, if they had applied to have stables for their own domestic purposes, they might have got permission.
BIG — more acceptable than small?
At Maesybont, the cases of the haulage business and of new buildings at Blaenpant Farm over the years seem to be issues of ‘too much aggravation’ to resolve. The extensive range of buildings have permission for agricultural use, but ‘agriculture’ appears to have a broad definition when large areas of land are involved, and can include horse grazing and storage of industrial equipment, for example. On the other hand, a narrow definition seems to be applied to smaller plots, as in the case of Mr and Mrs Redman’s field shelter.
Planning inspector P J Davies called Mr and Mrs Redman’s shelter “low in height and not unduly prominent in public vantage points because it is situated just below the hedge line and screened by the hedge itself”, and she also said that there is no absolute prohibition against buildings on small acreages, but she decided that the shelter lacked agricultural justification and so could not remain.
At Crugybar, the substantial roadside building does not have agricultural justification either, and in fact it is a condition of planning permission that the building is used only for domestic or recreational use!
Applications for BIG buildings seem to have a larger chance of success than proposals for small structures which help the applicants to earn a living. The recently rejected plans for four smallholdings at Rhiw Las near Llanboidy are a good example of ‘small is suspect’. Although the smallholdings met all the requirements of the Wales Government’s innovative One Planet policy for low-impact living, and although the planning officer dealing with the application recommended its approval, a majority of councillors on the planning committee apparently could not think of ‘agriculture’ as anything other than large flocks of sheep, or of substantial herds of beef or dairy cattle. Given this conception of ‘agriculture’, and the current difficulties of making a living from this type of large-scale ‘agriculture’, no surprise that councillors could not imagine how anyone could support themselves and their families from a mini-acreage.
If they were to visit the Lammas settlement just over the county boundary in Pembrokeshire, they would have a shock. The nine smallholdings on a total of 76 acres provided £93,000-worth of produce and income, according to the latest annual monitoring report.[i] This was split £52,000 in food and fuel produced and consumed on site, £27,000 in sales of produce from the land, and £14,000 in earnings from training courses, open days and other educational ventures. That is just on £1,224 per acre. Tao Wimbush, one of the Lammas founders, said that before their co-op acquired the land, it was providing about £3,000 a year, mainly from lamb sales. The continuing work to raise soil fertility, and to develop diverse enterprises focused on adding value, has increased productivity by a multiple of 31 times. The activity of ‘agriculture’ should not be tied to an understanding of common practice in the recent past, but this is the definition most often used by councillors.
So, No to new smallholdings, but Yes to a four-bedroom house at Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road, in the countryside 40 metres from a farmyard containing a currently unoccupied farmhouse. The rationale from members of the planning committee, who approved the plan contrary to the advice of the planning officer, seemed to be that the applicant, Mr Brian Walters, is prominent in the Farmers Union of Wales and an upstanding member of the community.
A four-bedroomed house in the countryside is definitely a development. Can the same be said of Bobby Bazalgette’s solar panels on his single-storey barn? Renewable energy is sensible, surely? Much better for the climate than burning coal, oil or gas. Not in the eyes of Carmarthenshire’s planning department – which told Mr Bazalgette to remove the panels because they detracted from the historical setting of his farmhouse, which is a listed building (although the barn is not listed). This seems a pernickety decision – an intervention against a small and many would say eminently appropriate change, which in no way damages the fabric of the listed farmhouse nearby.
While the planning department has been heavy-handed over this small issue, it forgot it had hands when confronted with damage to part of Cernydd Carmel, a Special Area of Conservation which is supposed to receive the highest possible level of protection. Destruction of surface features and habitats, over more than a decade, appears to have struck the planners as less important than renewable energy panels on a barn.
With such seemingly odd decisions as these, can the public have full confidence that their applications will be dealt with fairly and impartially? That unauthorised developments or destruction will be halted?
Planning rules there must be, or I could build a tower block, a paint factory or a shopping mall in my garden. But planning rules need to take account of our changing world, of finite resources, of climate change, of new ways to earn a living, of radical change in agriculture, of low-impact living on the land. The One Planet policy is a good omen — but will remain an omen unless planning committees accept it as a serious way to re-energise the countryside.
And how about if planning departments made a point of telling us how they
- Regularly scrutinised, for inconsistencies and possible errors, the decisions they make under the extensive powers which have been delegated to them;
- Put matters right if there have been mistakes; and
- Published the reasons if apparently contradictory decisions are due to quirks in the regulations — this would flag up which regulations need to be reviewed
Planning officers themselves are often unfairly maligned. Departments are short-staffed, and officers have heavy workloads. Cutting staff to the point of inefficiency seems very short-sighted, especially when bad decisions result.
Councillors might say they also suffer under excessive burdens, but some recent decisions they have made suggest that including planning policies in their bedtime reading wouldn’t be at all a bad idea.
[i] Tao Wimbush, one of the Lammas founders, gave this data at the Powys REconomy conference in Llandrindod Wells on October 17th 2015.