Letter sent to East Devon District Council, 15 March 2004, concerning inadequate planning procedures and matters arising from planning applications at Hamilton Garage, Sidford.
Mr K Hassan
Corporate Director of Environment
Dear Mr Hassan
RE: Hamilton Garage Applications 04/P/0496 and 04/P/0497
Material inaccuracies: resubmission to the Town Council
I have discussed these applications with EDDC staff and with Sidmouth Town Council. I am unhappy both with some of your procedures and with the way that these applications have been handled to date. In particular there may be material inaccuracies in both applications that should result in them being returned to the Town Council for further and more detailed consideration, and after residents in the area have been made aware of the applications and have had a proper opportunity to discuss with their elected representatives.
In particular, on 12 March I discussed several issues by telephone and subsequently in person with a young lady on your front desk (Trina) who, despite being helpful, was unable to convince me that all was well with your procedures. The principal point here is posting of site notices - and the fact that the Town Council has considered both these applications before most local people had any idea of what was being proposed.
I am aware that planning applications are published in the Sidmouth Herald (in small print) and that (as an 'addition' to statutory requirements) you notify a few neighbours. The fact remains however, and I invite your views by way of confirmation, that the principal means by which most local people get to know about planning applications in their area is by the prominent and proper posting of brightly coloured site notices.
I discussed this with the Town Clerk on 12 March and she confirmed to me that she had recently discussed with you a similar case in Peaslands Road where a contentious application was about to be decided despite that most or many local people still did not know about it. The bare facts here are that not everyone reads the Sidmouth Herald, and of those who do, few avidly trawl through planning applications month after month (and year after year) in the hope someday of discovering that their neighbour is about to install a new window. No, they go about their daily lives and if a planning application has been made they will be hit between the eyes by a brightly coloured notice as they either drive or walk along the road.
It is of course, important that notices are displayed in as visible a location as possible and not tucked away in a side road - I discussed this in particular with your staff in respect of the posting of a notice in respect of the land Village End which fronts the main A3052. The applicant has given the address as England's Close - a side road.
It is an important part of quality management to ensure that proper consultation and accountability procedures are in place. These must defer to prevailing local realities as to how local people find out about planning applications. Your front desk staff confirmed to me that it is the job of the case officer to post the site notice(s), and that this job is never delegated. Thus, if an officer is sick or (as in this case, both part time and on leave) the blue notice may not even be scheduled to be posted until after matters have been discussed by the Town Council. A more effective procedure would be for site notices to be displayed AS SOON AS THE APPLICATION HAS BEEN RECEIVED AND CHECKED.
I am informed that your present procedures seek to maximise officer efficiency by posting the notice at the time of a site inspection - but you are here maximising a trivial parameter and ignoring that local accountability (a major factor in ensuring that the planning process retains credibility) may be significantly degraded.
In respect of individually notifying near neighbours, your system adds little to the overall process. In the case of the applications cited, you notified 5 properties, 4 of which I believe are owned by the applicant and occupied by tenants who are less likely to raise objections. The fifth property could easily be a holiday home. None of the other properties that could be markedly affected by consequences of the applications being approved were notified. For this scheme to have any significant merit it would need to include all properties within (say) a 300-metre radius of any part of the site. For some applications in rural locations 600 metres might be inadequate. Notwithstanding this improvement that you could make at trivial expense, proper and prompt posting of site notices is the most important issue.
I now turn to 'material inaccuracies' in the applications. I discussed with 'Trina' on your front desk some inconsistencies in the maps within the application folders. She said that if there were errors on the material submitted by the applicants then that would be sufficient to have the files resubmitted to the Town Council for further consideration. It transpired that the errors were on maps added by your staff - and she promised to have these investigated. However, there are other apparent errors that should result in re submission to the Town Council.
The application to build 4 dwellings in the garden of the property 'Village End' (04/P/0497) cites the present use of land as "Vacant land and part garage". This is surely materially incorrect. The land (before it was despoiled as described in my letter to the EA of 10 March) was primarily the garden of Village End and indeed some of the proposed site is still used a garden for this (now rented) domestic property. The only part of 'garage land' would be to provide the proposed access road by demolishing a single storey building. This error should result in the application being resubmitted to the Town Council. It is one thing to use 'vacant and garage land'. It is quite another to turn a large garden in a Conservation Area into a building site and, inter alia, to reduce the area of garden and parking space for an established village property from around half an acre to a few square metres.
There is also the matter of a statement made in this application in answer to your question: "Does the proposed development involve the felling of any trees". In the application the answer is printed as "No". Please refer to my letter of 10 March to the EA and inform me in writing what actions your Authority intends to take properly to investigate and act upon this matter.
In the application to extend the garage buildings (04/P/0496), there is a statement " no alteration to existing: extensive car parking and customer parking on site". The present position is that cars awaiting repair or collection are often stored on England's Close and sometimes minor inspections (under bonnet etc) are undertaken on this road, the car park and workshops being full to capacity. New cars are routinely off loaded either on the main road or in Packhorse Close because England's Close is full of parked vehicles. If the applications would result in any loss of car parking space to the rear of the garage, this could impact on the parking situation on-road locally and should properly be taken into account by the Town Council. Please inform me if there is a material inaccuracy here. The fact that England's Close if often virtually full of parked cars also impacts on the viability of the proposed road access so close to the junction of England's Close and the A3052.
There is another matter to consider in respect of the garage extension. Trees and vegetation have been cleared from adjoining land owned by the applicant so that the present garage buildings and also the proposed extensions will be highly visible within a Conservation Area. As a part of planning consent it could be argued that the Town Council should have insisted that tree cover and screening be reinstated in the interests of visual amenity - but no doubt most members had never seen the site and few if any would have known about changes that have recently taken place. Certainly this is a condition that EDDC should consider imposing whether or not application 0496 is referred back to the Town Council.
The inadequacy of your procedures may be illustrated by the fact that these applications were received by EDDC on 20 February. They were sent to the Town Council on 24 February (commendably quickly), five neighbours were informed on 2 March and the rest of the village are still in blissful ignorance after nearly a month - and after the Town Council has given its views without local people having been afforded a proper opportunity to comment. I only found out about the applications because one of your colleagues was kind enough to telephone me.
As a past Town Councillor with some interest in planning, I am entirely unconvinced by any argument to the effect that representations can still be made to EDDC 21 days after the site notice is eventually posted. If the Town Council approves an application (maybe after some local councillors have failed to do their homework properly) it could well be 'nodded through' at EDDC and with material facts not having been discovered or investigated and placed on file.
With so many applications to consider, there is understandable pressure on case officers to 'clear them out of the way' as soon as possible. This being undeniably the position, it is all the more reason to have the best possible procedures in place to alert local people - some of whom may have important information or observations to add to the overall picture.
I await your replies.
Dr Stephen J Wozniak
Copies by email:
Suzi Allen Landscapes
photos of the trees in question
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