For years, the so-called ‘Bunker’ in Rocklands Caravan Park has been, according to many of its critics, disfiguring the East Hill and Hastings Country Park. Now a retrospective planning application is generating fresh opposition – Bernard McGinley explains…
Next week it was hoped that Hastings councillors would once again be discussing the ‘Bunker’ which critics say has blighted the Country Park since it was built almost a decade ago. An illegal and unauthorised balcony extension was reported earlier in the year and Hastings Borough Council (HBC) took action: they wrote to Rocklands and soon after that the balcony extension was removed, as secretively as it had been installed.
In September the enforcement enquiry (ENF/20/00076) was suspended due to the ongoing retrospective planning application ‘470’. The method in this madness is that then the left hand won’t know what the right hand is doing. Evidence of irregularities that would – if disclosed – change or invalidate the application, go unmentioned and unpublished.
Though the enforcement file is unpublished, the application file is not and there are objections.
A key one is to do with the dimensions of the building and the extent to which it conforms, or not, with previous permissions.
The HBC planning services manager states that the balcony is two metres deep, the maximum allowed. She has not explained how the measurement was made ‘visually’, which usually means ‘by eye’. There is no mention of any measuring device, no photo, no note of a site visit; this may yet matter, as the Local Government Ombudsman can consider faults in procedure including ‘fail[ing] to keep proper records, such as records of site visits’.
A new drawing (published in case file ‘470’ in October 2020, and confusingly titled ‘As Built – Proposed Floor Plans [etc]’) adds to those pre-existing doubts about the balcony and showing it as well over two metres deep. Other dimensions are also suspicious as the widths of balcony panels are inconsistent.
There are additional problems with the application including the various external changes proposed and the adamance of the planning department that matters such as irregular works at the ‘Bunker’ including the patio and the retaining wall all within the site’s ‘red line area’, should be considered, to understand the totality of what is going on.
Here’s a quick history
An application to replace a small, well-screened bungalow, on this site was refused planning permission.
A similar application (HS/FA/12/00952) was made – so similar that the HBC planning report even stated ‘This application follows refusal HS/FA/12/00471 for the same proposal.’ It was, however, approved under ‘delegated powers’ by planning officers and not at committee.
When the ‘Bunker’ arrived, dominating that part of the Country Park, there was a public outcry. The discovery that the building was too high and in the wrong orientation added to the outcry and the realisation that protected trees had been torn down despite public protest, while the Council said it was allowed. (See Private Eye No 1369, ‘Rotten Boroughs’, p10.) Only later did it acknowledge that the trees were protected. By then the eyesore in the Country Park was a concrete fact.
In 2014 the Council’s ‘Bahcheli Report’ drew on the report by Standen Associates Ltd, local chartered building surveyors, together with M. J. Zara Associates, which was accepted by the inspector and the main parties as an accurate assessment of the various discrepancies from the ‘952’ permission. These included ‘greater projection of the balconies’, ‘the installation of a retaining wall’, and a height two feet higher than had permission, the then Development Manager at HBC left his job soon after.
The HBC Cabinet meeting of December 2014 acknowledged mistakes and in March 2015 the Planning Committee voted unanimously for demolition – with some ringing endorsements. This Enforcement Order was contested by Rocklands in an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, held in 2016 at the White Rock Theatre.
The inspector’s appeal decision (ref 3029007) allowed the bunker to stay up, with strict conditions — such as balcony depth: “The reduction in height of Scheme 3A and its loss of visual bulk through smaller balconies, combined with a choice of colour attracting less attention in the countryside and increased screening, would make it acceptable in my opinion,” the inspector said at the time.
That 2016 decision is what is now being trashed. A subject in itself is that the tree-screening that was part of the appeal decision somehow never happened. Rocklands got sea views, visitors to the Country Park got bunker views.
In early 2020 it was noticed that the illegal balcony extension was back. After it was removed again, a retrospective application was made for various external changes. Closer inspection revealed balcony anomalies and dogged disregard of the retaining wall, patio and the Scheduled Ancient Monument there. The retaining wall has not been submitted for planning approval – including not to the inspector in the 2016 appeal. Therefore it breaches the appeal conditions.
Remarkably, after a decade the bunker is still a problem and now the enforcement enquiry is suspended, though it existed before the retrospective application did.
An undermining of public policy is seen by some: the government’s National Planning Policy Framework is clear that ‘effective enforcement is important to maintain public confidence in the planning system’.
Given the history of apparent contempt for the planning process at Rocklands, the urgency is clear. Public confidence in the enforcement planning system (and by implication the Council) seems at risk.
The Council’s 2014 line that lessons-have-been-learnt is no longer credible. If they were they’ve been forgotten, because the same we-know-best mistakes are being made.
When the Bunker case will be considered is still not known but it seems that it will not be in October. The Planning Committee meetings of November 4th and 18th are possible dates for a decision. The Committee could seek a site visit in advance of that, to ascertain for themselves what Rocklands is now like and how it accords with their understanding and planning records.
Hopes of a motion to full council next week (October 21st) for a vote on independent remeasurement of the Bunker to be put forward failed. A proposer and seconder from the 32 Councillors could not be found, who thought this was a matter of public interest or sufficient importance. This is despite the dismal planning history of Rocklands, including the live ‘red line’ concerns.
The next Full Council meeting is on December 16th.