‘Barngate’ Saga Highlights Planning Confusion
What’s up with Carmarthenshire’s planning committee? This week members pushed through approvals against the professional advice of the planning officers.
Not all members, of course, but enough to come to confusing decisions which appear to privilege some members of the community.
Which members of the community? Prominent people, influential people, and people who have already flouted planning regulations but make a persuasive case for allowing their development to remain — or so it seems to me.
That is the story from yesterday’s meeting of the committee, as well as from other recent meetings.
Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee has seven members of Plaid Cymru, six Independents, and six representing Labour, a total of 19. In addition there are ten ‘reserves’ who replace absent members. The reserves are four from Plaid Cymru, three Independents and three from Labour.
Two controversial applications were approved yesterday, despite planning officers having recommended refusal. The approval of a third, which planning officers had also opposed, was confirmed.
The Barns That Were
The decision, by a margin of one vote,* to allow construction to continue on a hairdressing salon and a holiday let, at the home near Pontyberem of council leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid Cymru, Llannon), is a controversial rebuke for the planning officers who tried to stop the unauthorised work, which replaces a double barn sited next to the public roadway, at right angles to it (see photo).
The barns saga began with a 2012 application from Mr Dole’s wife, the singer Gwenda Owen, to convert them into two holiday flats and one business unit. This was approved. Then part of one barn was demolished and in 2014, after an investigation triggered by the demolition and thereby non-compliance with the original permission, the planning department received retrospectively a new application, to rebuild the demolished part. Planning officers advised the planning committee to reject this amended plan (S/30698), but committee members disagreed and passed it.
Since then, however, the whole double barn has been demolished. And in the view of planning officers they were no longer dealing with a building conversion but with a completely new build, slightly smaller than the original barn duo and comprising a hairdressing salon and one holiday flat.
Planning committee members all had the chance to read case officer Gary Glenister’s report on the second retrospective application, which included the following:
“Whilst the principle of rural enterprise is supported by local and national policy in order to create jobs and diversify the rural economy, the policies are predicated on the re-use and adaptation of rural buildings. As an exception, new development in rural areas is only allowed when a sequential approach is taken and it can be demonstrated that there are no premises available within settlements…and any new build is immediately adjacent or directly related to sustainable settlements. In this case a sequential approach has not been taken and the business and holiday accommodation is new development in the open countryside between the settlements of Pontyberem and Pontiets and is not therefore immediately adjacent or directly related.” The report advised refusal as contrary to policies for new employment locations and for visitor accommodation.
Cllr Terry Davies (Labour, Gorslas) was adamant that passing this second retrospective application, for a building which is almost ready for its roof to be put on, would send the wrong message to the public, and former council leader Kevin Madge (Labour, Garnant) agreed, fearing that the floodgates would open as people got the message that if you build what you want without waiting for permission, you have a good chance of getting the committee to back you. Of course, it probably depends who you are, and this largesse would, perhaps, be unlikely to extend to applications from known felons or even from brand-new arrivals into this proud nation.
Councillors who voted to allow the building to be completed did not agree that it is a new build. Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) said it is not really a new building because original stone would be used for cladding. Cllr Eirwyn Williams (Plaid Cymru, Cynwyl Gaeo), found it difficult to think of it as a new building, and thought it would have much better foundations than the old barns. Cllr Tom Theophilus (Independent, Cilycwm) said he had heard that the builders were of good repute and the new building would be sounder than the old one. Cllr Jeff Owen (Plaid Cymru, Tyisha) argued that the new building would be sustainable, and an amenity for the community. For Cllr Ken Howell (Plaid Cymru, Llangeler) the building would support the rural economy and benefit small-scale tourism, and Cllr Hugh Richards (Independent, Felinfoel) said jobs would be created.
By nine votes to eight, Emlyn Dole and Gwenda Owen have approval to keep their completely rebuilt building.
Whether full public approval will be forthcoming is another matter.
The Cattery That Is
Two new buildings totalling 277 square metres, covered in grey profile steel cladding, went up at Broadway Farm, Llangain, near Llansteffan, without permission. The buildings, for G and D Williams, replaced old Dutch barns and are in use as a cattery. A retrospective application was refused in June 2015. This week, the planning committee had a resubmission before it (W/32479). Case officer Stuart Willis had prepared a long report detailing reasons for refusal. His conclusion was that “having regard to prevailing planning policies and material considerations, it is not considered the development complies with the relevant policies of the Carmarthenshire Local Development Plan or national guidance”.
The retrospective application form for the cattery states that it is not an agricultural holding. It might have been possible to grant approval on the grounds of farm diversification, but if there is no farming it cannot be diversified. Mr Willis’ report says that the “application has not demonstrated that the proposal would be subordinate to or support the continued operation of an agricultural activity. The information provided suggests a limited level of agricultural activity at present and has not demonstrated that the proposal is a farm diversification scheme in compliance with the policy.”
Broadway Farm is 18 acres in open countryside and carries two goats, six ewes, eight horses and some poultry, according to Mr Willis’s report. The cattery has capacity for over 30 felines and would therefore be the dominant activity.
In all, the report gives ten separate reasons why the application should be refused. In the planners’ eyes, the cattery is composed of two industrial buildings inappropriately sited in the countryside, but not on a working farm which needs to diversify to remain viable.
Cllr Daff Davies (Independent, Llansteffan) led the charge in favour of the cattery. The new constructions are more visually appealing than the previous sheds, he said. The owners live on the premises and so are on hand to look after the cats. Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) regretted that the development was completed before the owners put in a planning application, but considered the cattery to be an asset to the local community and of value to the rural economy. Cllr Hugh Richards (Independent, Felinfoel) referred to the benefits of farm diversification ventures such as this.
Labour members Terry Davies (Gorslas) and Kevin Madge (Garnant) were both strongly opposed to approving the application, Cllr Davies going so far as to say the committee would be subject to public ridicule, and Cllr Madge predicting a big increase in the numbers of buildings going up without any permission.
They were in the minority, though. The planning officer’s advice was overturned, and the committee voted for the grey-clad buildings to remain, by a margin of two to one.
The House That Will Be
Permission for a four-bedroom house in the countryside, 40 or so metres from the farmyard of Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road, was confirmed. An existing smaller, unoccupied house in the farmyard has to be demolished. Planning officers had originally recommended refusal for the plan (W/32578), submitted by Mr Brian Walters, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales.
Is the applicant a well-known individual of good repute? Has he or she already put up a substantial building without permission? Or have they got permission for a development and then decided to go and build something completely different?
If so, they would seem to have quite good odds of success in Carmarthenshire.
I have no quarrel with catteries, no hatred of new houses, no desire to dismiss farm diversification, and am positively enthusiastic about small-scale agriculture and re-use of old buildings, but a reputation for, let’s call it inconsistency, is bad for the council and bad for public attitudes to local democracy, no matter if planning officers and councillors may be trying hard to achieve a correct outcome.
The tangled complexity of the myriad of planning policies and regulations means that it is often possible to find part of a policy which supports the case in question even if other relevant policies oppose it — and if the applicant is an influential person, they are more likely than a shy, retiring, little-known individual to attract the support they need to achieve their goal.
Even if that goal involves some highly selective interpretations of the rules.
* Two Plaid Cymru councillors voted against the barn replacement and the chair, Plaid’s Alun Lenny, abstained.