Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) planning committee will discuss the retrospective application for The Bunker at Rocklands tomorrow (Jan 19th) and officials are recommending approval. It is case HS/FA/20/00470 and you can see the full report going to members of the planning committee by clicking here
The history of ‘The Bunker’ at Rocklands Caravan Park is a long and complicated one, the case file is full of detailed objections, arguments and explanations. In advance of tomorrow’s meeting where councillors are being recommended to approve the retrospective application Bernard McGinley takes us through a brief summary of the issues.
The Caravan Park’s notorious Bunker, erupting in the Country Park, caused outrage and consternation and eventually the entire planning committee voted to demolish it.
An appeal to the Planning Inspectorate followed, that saved most of it. Since then it appears that Rocklands has treated the council and local residents with contempt, apparently going beyond or behind the rules, with multiple breaches of what the inspector decided after careful consieration in 2016.
How can what he decided was not acceptable somehow become acceptable?
The report for tomorrow night’s committee says:
“The retrospective nature of the application is not a material consideration that justifies refusal of permission.”
But in 2015 central government reform introduced a planning policy to make intentional unauthorised development a material consideration that would be weighed in the determination of planning applications and appeals.
The report is misleading the committee therefore.
If the officers mean that this intentional unauthorised development – with its twice-removed balcony – is not a material consideration sufficient to justify refusal of this retrospective application, they should say so. Additionally they must explain how that supposition was arrived at.
Site ‘redline area’ ignored
Detailed and frequent concerns have been expressed about the building ‘redline area’, the land to which the application relates. This is a retrospective application but it – like the report – does not address the situation ‘as is’ in the site’s area. The site’s unauthorised works have been ignored rather than addressed: the extended balcony, the retaining walls, the excavations, the access ramp and steps, and related anomalies and discrepancies.
Site visit ignored
A Planning Committee site visit, reasonable and obvious in the circumstances, has so far been refused. Objection letters and emails have explained it repeatedly. Now there is now no time to arrange one. A decision not based on a site visit would be dubious.
Independent remeasurement ignored
Similarly, a proposed independent remeasurement of the Bunker was disregarded. Councillor Forward, Leader of the Council, was asked about one at Full Council on December 16th and has yet to answer the question.
Balcony Depth ignored
The balcony depth was ‘visually’ inspected as being two metres, the legal maximum. HBC stated carefully last year that this is ‘not recorded information’. Now it is in the committee report.
The report describes the assertion of a deep balcony as ‘baseless.’ How can it be baseless if the balcony hasn’t been measured? Planning officers’ stated absence of notes and photographs is a breach of Local Government Ombudsman guidance.
Case ‘1036’ improperly engaged
The report’s assertion that case HS/FA/14/01036 was amended is false, it was in fact refused.
Tree screening ignored
Screening of the Bunker is not engaged with in the committee report. The Inspector’s Appeal decision endorsed the need for ‘increased screening’ as well as ‘smaller balconies’. Where is that screening?
Enforcement enquiries ignored
Bunker enforcement cases ENF/20/00325 and ENF/20/00076 are not mentioned. Why would an enquiry be suspended rather than informing a planning decision? It makes no sense.
Historic England ignored
Historic England have made a site visit and their formal comment is due soon. This will address possible damage to the Iron Age Scheduled Monument at the site, and the absence of Scheduled Monument Consents. Working on a Scheduled Monument without an ‘SMC’ is a criminal offence.
Structural report missing
Section 5 e) mentions a structural report that is not among the case documents, which is poor practice. What does it say? Who is it by?
The issues just keep rolling. For instance, repeated breach non-compliance is a material consideration. Why therefore don’t the Council decide that this retrospective application is self-invalidating?
The Council’s response to a Freedom of Information request with the line: “Information not held – Emails from [HBC employee] to Historic England are not uploaded on system and his email has been deleted.” Is technically ridiculous. They’ve gone and they were never there anyway? (Uploading is automatic with an employee’s email address.)
Possibly more important than procedural wrangles is the simple question of why HBC is so self-abasing before Rocklands Caravan Park.
In 2014 they admitted in the ‘Bahcheli Report’ that they’d got it wrong over the Bunker. It was claimed that lessons had been learned.
Clearly they hadn’t.
Without good information the Council cannot make a good decision here – and they don’t have good information, or even seek it. It is unprofessional, laughable even that two planners could visit the balcony twice and have no record of this, no site notes and no measuring device.
Entirely separately the Save Ecclesbourne Glen group has also raised a number of issues with Hastings Borough Council in advance of tomorrow night’s meeting. These concern measurements. In its submission to the council it asks councillors, before deciding the application, to:
- Ask why the Planning Department has refused to measure any part of the building except for the depth of the balconies?
- Ask why planning consider ‘visual inspection’ to be a substitute for actually measuring disputed dimensions?
- Obtain evidence that the depth of balconies are two metres.
- Obtain evidence from planning confirming the other dimensions of the balconies conform to the approved plans.
- Obtain an explanation as to why the latest plans show the balconies to have a greater depth than the two metres that planning claim.
- Obtain an explanation as to why no measurements or site visit notes were recorded during two enforcement site visits.
- Ask why an independent remeasurement of the building has not been carried out?
- Ask why a Planning Committee site visit has not been carried out?
- Obtain an explanation as to why all of HBC ex-employee Mr Sawyer’s correspondence concerning balcony enforcement issues has been lost as claimed by HBC in response to an FOI request.