Martock Muddle

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The following piece should have been in our March edition but didn’t make the cut, so we thought you might like to read it online. I apologise in advance if some of the planning speak is technical, I’ve tried to edit that out but…

Many planning applications are straightforward – plans are submitted, the parish says yes, the planning officer says yes, and it gets waved through. Only the controversial ones, or the ones that are thought might be controversial, get discussed in public session, either by a planning committee, or as they do it in South Somerset, by an area committee, of which there are four, North, South, East and West. Each committee includes all of the elected councillors of the “Area”.

The idea is to be as democratic as possible. The District Planning Officer makes his/her recommendation for or against and gives his reasons. The public get a say, the applicant gets a say and then the councillors debate it and vote. It is the vote of councillors, your elected representatives, that decides the outcome. But if the decision they make is considered unsound, relative to planning guidelines or even the law of the land, the applicant can, of course, appeal and have the case heard by the independent Planning Inspectorate at Bristol.

So a good system.

Occasionally though, things can get a little out of hand. So it was with plans to build 35 houses on a field on the edge of Martock. The decision came before SSDC’s Area North Committee at the end of last month. The complication was that the site had been approved 3 years ago, with 12 “affordable homes” subject to a s106 agreement being reached. This is money developers are asked to pay to contribute towards the cost of local amenities (play areas, leisure, etc) when a large estate is built. That s106 agreement was never made, so back came the application, but this time with only 4 affordable homes in it.

Fiona Hook went into bat first, speaking as Chair of Martock Parish Council: “reducing affordable housing is not what our village needs. The Parish Council does not agree to this and these plans set an unfortunate precedent. Our priority is to provide for our residents, not sustain the profits of a developer.”

Outrage followed. The officers tried to explain that, as the previous application had been passed, the mere fact that the number of affordable homes had been reduced was not sufficient grounds for refusing the application. But then, as Councillor Adam Dance pointed out, it should be. As he said “we need more affordable homes in South Somerset and even those which are, well they are rarely really affordable.” Councillor Graham Middleton chipped in with the perfectly reasonable observation that, as the field was next to a successful business, “putting houses there stops further development of employment land. Employment is what Martock needs most – not more expensive houses.

Planning and legal officers now formed a huddle.

No, they said, the fact you approved this in 2013, binds you today. Councillor Stephen Page protested that “there was an election in 2015. The members of the committee that approved these plans are different to the ones sitting in judgement today. It is a matter of principle followed by parliament that a previous committee should not bind a future one.” The legal officer interjected at this point to suggest that this point of view would not hold water for local government.

Now it was the turn of Councillor Neil Bloomfield who raised a point of order, noting that the minutes of the 2013 committee appeared to show that it voted 8 to 3 in favour of rejecting the application. Not so, quoth the legal officer, that was an application to defer a decision, the actual decision was 11 votes to 1 in favour. At which point Adam Dance returned to the fray, suggesting that, if the planning permission was granted in 2013, given that planning only lasts 3 years, now we are in 2017 presumably the application must be seen as a new application.

Planning officers and legal officers now formed a second huddle. No, apparently not. The planning application is not formally approved until the s106 is agreed. And the s106 never was agreed so the planning application was not technically approved.

Which made this observer wonder how the committee could be bound by a decision to approve the plans, if technically that approval had not been given? Ho hum. Now a proposal came forward from Adam Dance, seconded by Neil Bloomfield, to reject the application.

This resulted in a really frantic huddle. For reasons which were not revealed to us, the legal officer then took the Chair of Area North, Langport Councillor, Clare Aparicio, outside. For another huddle presumably. There was now such genuine concern that the planning officer also joined the huddle outside.

It became apparent that the officers were insistent that there were no strong grounds for rejecting the application. I think it is important to note here that the officers were not trying to be wilfully obstructive. Their role is to provide legal and planning guidance, and they can only follow the rules. They were panicking because, in essence, the rules are an ass. Be that as it may, they have to guide the councillors, but the councillors have now spotted the fact that the Emperor is indeed wearing no clothes. Councillor Sylvia Seal attempted to cut through the maelstrom by suggesting that the decision is deferred. There is far too much technical information and legal stuff to wade through to make the decision today and we should get more advice.

Sensible enough. But Clare Aparicio was now in a difficult position. She was obliged by the rules to take the first proposal, by Messrs Dance and Bloomfield, first. Only after that could she take the second proposal, from Councillor Seal to defer the matter. And perhaps against all expectations, the proposal to reject the plans was carried by 5 votes to 4, with Stephen Page abstaining.

At the end of the day, the officers were concerned that, if this now goes to appeal and the applicant wins, because the rules are as they are, the costs will be given against the council. But when something is so clearly wrong, wrong in principle, what should an elected councillor do? Can you blithely ignore the fact that so many people born in Somerset can’t afford to buy a house here? Can you just turn the other cheek when an important principle, that of not being bound by a previous committee, something not allowed in parliament, is for some reason forced on District Councillors?  If elected representatives do not ask difficult questions, but blindly follow the rules, then what is the point in having elected representatives?