Blogger faces financial oblivion — part 2
The second part of an investigation into the interactions between planning decisions in Carmarthenshire, free speech, institutional power, and access to legal expertise. The first part, here, reported on the financial oblivion faced by Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson, who lost a libel action against Mr Mark James and Carmarthenshire County Council. Jacqui had many questions about planning decisions, and in Carmarthenshire there have been several examples of decisions which appear inconsistent, odd, and hard to justify.
See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 19, p.8
Inconsistencies in decisions made by Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department highlight both the tangled complexity of planning regulations and a tendency in the council not to challenge – -at least, not to challenge early enough – planning contraventions which could consume large quantities of the department’s time and resources. Sometimes, too, councillors fail to follow planning policy when it conflicts with personal views of how the world should work.
Last week in Part 1, we saw that Jacqui’s application for a forestry worker’s bungalow received multiple rejections, but on a nearby parcel of bare land another applicant’s plan for a farm worker’s bungalow was approved.
There are more seemingly contrary cases. The following examples, originally from ‘Inconsistent planning decisions damage public confidence’, in West Wales News Review, October 18 2015, represent some of the planning contradictions which have perplexed applicants and the public.
|Stable block by roadside hedge at Crugybar (E/29504)||Mobile 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, 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)||Four smallholdings in accordance with the Wales Government’s ‘One Planet’ policy, near Llanboidy (W/31160). This was later granted on appeal, with the county council ordered to pay the applicant’s costs||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 an unlisted barn adjacent to a listed house, Brechfa (E/31647)|
Field shelter verdict made national news
At Broad Oak, Andrew and Meg-Anne Redman failed to get permission to retain a mobile field shelter, set behind 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. The decision went against common practice of allowing mobile structures on farms and smallholdings, and was so out-of-the-ordinary that it made the front cover of Horse and Hound magazine.
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.
The equestrian building at Caer Onnen, Crugybar, 94 feet long and over 24 feet wide on a holding of just under 12 acres, is also set behind a hedge. It is a condition of planning permission that this building is used only for domestic or recreational purposes. On this basis, if Mr and Mrs Redman had applied for a shelter for domestic use, they might have been successful.
At Maesybont, the issues of a haulage business and large new buildings at Blaenpant Farm 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 and permissive 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 on 6.2 acres.
Council must cough up costs
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. 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 Welsh 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 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.
But they made the wrong decision. Applicant Erica Thompson (no relation to Jacqui) appealed, and in June 2016 planning inspector Alwyn Nixon gave permission for the venture to proceed – and ordered the county council to pay the costs of the appeal.
So, ‘No’ to new smallholdings, but ‘Yes’ to a four-bedroom house at Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road, in the countryside and 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, arguably, a bigger intrusion into the landscape than Bobby Bazalgette’s solar panels on his single-storey barn at Brechfa. 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 was heavy-handed over this small issue, it forgot it had hands when confronted with damage at Maesybont 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, seems to have struck the planners as less important than renewable energy panels on a barn – or so it appears to the general public.
Public scrutiny of inconsistent decisions is surely legitimate. With such seemingly odd determinations as these, how could the public have full confidence that their applications will be dealt with fairly and impartially, or that unauthorised developments or destruction will be halted?
Jacqui Thompson’s arrest in 2011 for filming at a Carmarthenshire County Council meeting generated copious publicity, and has helped to open up meetings to scrutiny. Members of the public can sit in the public gallery above the council chamber, but the view of proceedings is restricted. Additionally, people were locked in until the Fire Service was alerted to the practice of locking the emergency exit doors.
Meetings of the full council and the executive board, as well as the planning committee, are now webcast, and can be watched online both at the time and later, a real advance in transparency. The webcasts are a rich resource for journalists and bloggers alike. Webcasts of planning committee meetings have shown favouritism to some applicants, and on occasion hostility to others, for reasons which have nothing to do with planning regulations. The councillors concerned just seemed insufficiently aware of current planning policies.
Transparency would expand further if planners told 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 for apparently contradictory decisions.
The retreat of the regional press in the face of cheap digital competition meant that scrutiny of planning and other local government decisions became less systematic. Bloggers fill gaps, by reporting local news and seeking to hold institutions like councils to account. For Jacqui Thompson, who was not a professional journalist and learned, painfully and expensively through writing, her blog began as a way to highlight planning issues, but expanded to cover a broad spectrum of local government activities. In 2011 her ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More’ won the ‘best politics blog’ category in the occasional Wales Blog Awards, and in 2014 she was a finalist.
The accolades, though, failed to convince the county council that her blog is political comment and not an expression of revenge.