In December two borough councillors asked for their questions to be answered over issues surrounding planning infringements at ‘The Bunker’ at Rocklands.
Today, almost a month later and only hours before a crucial vote on the matter by the council’s planning committee, they finally got their answers – and they make fascinating and uncompromising reading!
The written reply by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) leader Kim Forward does nothing to defuse the the tension between the council and local campaigners who have been fighting, for years, what they see as clear breaches of planning regulations. That battle included a full review by the Planning Inspector in 2016 and in her response today Ms Forward appears to suggest some of the inspector’s recommendations constitute ‘unreasonable harassment’.
Here Bernard McGinley, who has been following this story for most of the last decade, considers the council leader’s comments and explains what they mean.
The Bunker controversy about the treatment of a retrospective planning application at Rocklands Caravan Park [HS/FA/20/00470] gets worse and there is new evidence too.
The Leader of HBC, Councillor Kim Forward, finally commented on the request by members for an independent remeasurement and Planning Committee site visit. While those issues were not directly addressed they’re not going to happen soon, if ever.
In answer to the question:
‘Will the Leader of the Council assure the public that all enforcement requirements are being fulfilled in relation to Rocklands?’
Ms Forward’s statement read:
A review of all outstanding enforcement cases at Rocklands was undertaken in August/September 2020. As a result of that review, some enforcement cases were closed with the following reasons provided:
- That the works referred to had occurred more than four years ago and are therefore lawful.
- That the works are minor in nature and the pursuit of formal enforcement action is not warranted.
- That applications are submitted to seek regularise the matter.
- Both south and east balconies have been measured (2m) and are not in breach of approved plans, despite continued objections that suggest they are.
- That assumptions of possible of breaches of planning control, such as the overall dimensions of the holiday let building, are not justified or supported by any clear evidence that the breach has occurred. Enforcement action in such cases would appear to represent unreasonable harassment.
- That a planning application has been invited and are [sic] awaiting submission (driveway).
This approach is
- In accordance with the recently approved Planning Enforcement Policy (2020) and
- In accordance with guidance contained within the National Planning Practice Guidance.
Complainants were informed of the council’s findings and have also been advised that we will not accept letters of more than two pages – including supporting evidence – and that, of course, they may go through the complaints process if they are not satisfied.
Commentary on the leader’s statement
The request for a Committee site visit was completely ignored. The remeasurement issue – more than just the balconies – was treated indirectly.
Enforcement too is overlooked. Though some enforcement cases were closed, ENF/20/00076 was ‘suspended’ until this case is decided, when the enquiry’s findings will be worthless. This makes little sense.
The Leader’s points are shaky and often mistaken:
1. That the works referred to had occurred more than four years ago and are therefore lawful.
This is untrue in all respects (including lawfulness). The reported works are in breach of planning conditions: therefore the ten-year rule applies. Furthermore at the time of review the works had not been substantially completed — so the four-year rule did not apply either.
Substantial evidence was provided to the Planning Services Manager on these points. Eventually she changed tack and stated that the works were ‘too trivial’ for enforcement action.
2. That the works are minor in nature and the pursuit of formal enforcement action is not warranted
So what is considered ‘minor’?
When all other excuses for inaction fail, ‘too trivial’ or ‘minor’ is the fallback. The accumulation of minor works cannot be seen as minor: the construction of some 25 metres of retaining walls and the excavations in the iron-age fort, for instance.
The works affect the setting of a Scheduled Monument, and some are within it. The construction of steps is not minor. The reported extended balcony was not minor.
The only ‘minor works’ are the window and changes to balcony panels — both of which needed a new planning application. The definition of minor is clearly changing as the access road (see point 6) will now need a new application. Other works involved extensive excavations (walls and steps) and also required an application.
The site development is proceeding in bite-sized chunks and destroying the Inspector’s 2016 Appeal decision while it does so.
3. That applications are submitted to seek to regularise the matter
The only application submitted was for minor window and balcony works. What type of application should be submitted? Is continual salami-slicing allowed? Should not all works be covered by a single fresh and full application to regularise all works?
The council has a variety of instruments for regularisation, including of persistent breachers and abusers.
4. Both south and east balconies have been measured (2m) and are not in breach of approved plans, despite continued objections that suggest they are
If the balconies have been measured why did the council repeatedly define the measurements as ‘not recorded information’? Why did planning officers visit the site and not bring a notebook or a measuring instrument? Why are they so determined that there should be no Planning Committee site visit or independent remeasurement?
5. That assumptions of possible of breaches of planning control, such as the overall dimensions of the holiday let building, are not justified or supported by any clear evidence that the breach has occurred. Enforcement action in such cases would appear to represent unreasonable harassment.
This is outrageous.
The site history alone is sufficient reason to ask for a remeasurement. The volume and extent of unauthorised works shows contempt for the approved plans. Planning should verify a retrospective application to ensure the works as built conform. This application was raised due to flagrant building of extended balcony. As a bare minimum, all dimensions of the balconies should have been formally measured.
The objections are justified and supported by clear evidence of breach. It is shocking that the Leader of the Council can write: “Enforcement action in such cases would appear to represent unreasonable harassment.”
Given the long and continuing history of planning abuses planners would be merely doing their jobs in checking that the building actually complies with its permissions. This is indulgence, by a relentlessly supine council.
There is nothing unreasonable or harassing about verification. Declining to measure the balcony except ‘visually’ looks downright odd however.
6. That a planning application has been invited and [we] are awaiting a submission (driveway, aka access road).
This is proof of the accuracy of the enforcement queries made and the need to consider all works in one comprehensive application.
Save Ecclesbourne Glen’s (SEG) initial query was not read at all and it has never been confirmed that SEG’s query has been read.
Although ‘470’ is a retrospective application, the Council refuses to take a holistic look at the works on site. This is poor practice, even disreputable.
Reference to compliance with guidances is seriously misleading. The Council is not observing its own Planning Enforcement Policy regarding paragraphs 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24 and others there.
The guidance contained within the National Planning Practice Guidance is also being ignored and flouted: for instance the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) paragraph 58 on a Local Planning Authority’s duty to use its discretionary powers proportionately, ‘and take action where appropriate’.
Ruling out enforcement action because it supposedly looks like ‘unreasonable harassment’ is not proportionate. It looks more like complicity.
Ms Forward’s statement also ignores the Probity in Planning guidance by the Local Government Association on Committee site visits. The Bunker fits its requirements perfectly.
There is also her disregard of the HBC Planning Protocol (HBC Constitution: Part 5, Appendix 1):
2. This Protocol seeks to ensure openness, transparency, fairness and consistency in planning decisions and to ensure that the planning process operates properly, legally and effectively.
Planning decisions should be made openly, impartially, with sound judgement and for justifiable reasons. The process should leave no grounds for suggesting that a decision has been partial, biased or not well-founded in any way.
Public confidence locally in the planning system is declining. As NPPF paragraph 58 puts it: ‘Effective enforcement is important’.
The council should note that the extended balcony that was removed (twice) was not in fact fully removed. It is still there, a clear breach of the Inspector’s Appeal decision (3029007), and visible in new photographs.
The leader’s limit of two pages for letters to it, to include supporting evidence, has absolutely no basis in council procedure (the Constitution, the complaints policy or enforcement policy) to support it.
Complex cases need space to be explained, complaints about application faults and errors are not complaints about the council, so the capping is false – it is just another arbitrary way to suppress comment.
The online case file has many documents and comments explaining further what is wrong with this application. The council could so easily refute the charge that the balconies are too deep, and yet it does not. They could discredit the protesters if they believed their own untruths.
The Planning Committee meets tonight (Tuesday Jan 19th) at 6pm. It is being streamed online on the HBC website and you can watch it by follwojg this link https://www.hastings.gov.uk/my-council/cm/