Never mind bite, when it comes to planning enforcement our local council seem reluctant even to bark!

It’s always great to know that people are reading what you write and by the beginning of this week I was in no doubt people had been reading last week’s Sunday Supplement that turned the spotlight on the work of our borough council when it comes to planning matters writes Stuart Baillie.

It wasn’t just the public comments but the emails and personal messages via social media that made me realise that people across the borough have issues with planning decisions that have been made over the years.

In this weekend’s part two, I’m look at some specifics and a case that has upset people on an epic scale over a number of years, most recently just a couple of months ago, and that’s the creation of what has come to be known as ‘The Bunker’ at Rocklands. One councillor conceded recently that the site’s owners have been, ‘thumbing their nose’ and the council’s planners.

Next week in the third and final instalment we’ll be bringing things bang up to date and asking why the council seems so hell-bent on proceeding with developments that local people don’t want and we’ll be looking in detail at the plan to put 192 new homes on the Bulverhythe Recreation Ground.

I was reminded this week that our current planning system is something that only developed after the second world war and was implemented by a Labour government.

The UK’s town and country planning system emerged as concerns grew about industrialisation and urbanisation with particular concerns about pollution, urban sprawl and ribbon development.

The Housing and Town Planning Act 1909, the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919, the Town Planning Act 1925 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1932 were initial moves toward modern urban planning legislation.

By the outbreak of Second World War, thinking was sufficiently advanced that a ministry was established in 1943 and during the war a series of Royal commissions looked into specific problems in urban planning and development control and the work of those commissions resulted in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.

The 1947 Act required all proposals, with a few exceptions, to secure planning permission from the local authority. Green belts were added in 1955.

The 1947 Act introduced a requirement, which still exists, on local authorities to develop forward looking policy documents such as Local Plans to outline what kind of development is permitted where, and to mark special areas on Local Plan Maps.


But back to the here and now!

Campaigners say their experience with Rocklands over the years demonstrates that Hastings Borough Council is loathe to use its enforcement powers.  

“They fail to follow proper process, never issue planning contravention notices, do not record site visits, do not record any measurements taken, rarely carry out formal action, impede public reporting of issues, fail to consider evidence and often take the unsubstantiated hearsay of developers over evidence provided by the public,” says a spokesman for the Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG) group.   

He claims that HBC has frequently decided that what he describes as ‘substantial unauthorised works’, causing harm to the iron-age hill fort and scheduled monument, are ‘too trivial’ to take any enforcement action and he was stunned when HBC claimed that all enforcement case information from March to June 2020 had been lost and is no longer available.

‘The Bunker’ surely one of the town’s most controversial buildings!

“Calls for proper measurement of the building to confirm that it complies with the approved plans have been described as ‘harassment’ by the Leader of the council Kim Forward. 

“Planning has never properly measured the building and its balconies relying on what it describes as ‘visual inspection’ instead; it is difficult to understand why measurements were not properly recorded, or why such measures could be considered ‘harassment’,” he says. 

At last month’s Planning Committee Eleanor Evans the Development Control Manager was asked by Councillor Paul Foster: “Is there any way we can make a note to the developer that in the future can we try and avoid retrospective planning approval?”

Mrs Evans replied claiming her powers were limited: “I would love to be able to do that, we have actually said this to the applicant on many, many occasions. Unfortunately I can’t be there 24/7 monitoring them to see what they are doing, what they are up to. So it is very difficult for me to control, the only thing I can do is ask that they be aware of this. They do have a planning consultant – the planning consultant should be advising them. I am sure he probably does.

…any enforcement query received from the public can be no longer than two pages… breaches of these restrictions could lead to all correspondence, concerning reported breaches, being refused by officers. 

“You know, as much as I think it would be nice if the applicant in fact came to before they carried out works it’s very difficult for me, for us in the planning team, to ensure that happens. I can’t make that promise I’m afraid.”

Members of SEG believe that HBC is not using the powers that are available to them.

“Ms Evans statement gives a clear signal to developers that they can carry out unauthorised works with impunity and if they are caught, following public reports, are more than likely to be granted retrospective permission,” says the spokesman.

He goes on to say: “Ms Evans states that planning can’t monitor a site for breaches. This is understood and it is well known that most enforcement enquiries  are reported by the public but rather than welcoming public engagement, HBC has implemented measures that prevent, or dissuade the public from reporting enforcement issues; HBC have declared that any enforcement query received from the public can be no longer than two pages, including evidence, with warnings that breaches of these restrictions could lead to all correspondence, concerning reported breaches, being refused by officers. 

“This arbitrary edict seriously prevents the proper reporting of enforcement issues. The policy conflicts with planning enforcement guidance and is not supported by planning policy or the council’s constitution.

“It is an arbitrary policy, recently implemented, and has already been used several times concerning Rocklands issues – planning have refused to open, let alone read, detailed enforcement queries; it is unknown how planning can properly investigate enforcement issues, when they refuse to read queries that provide them with evidence.”

The Bunker – this photograph was one used at the planning committee in January when councillors were asked to consider the latest retrospective planning application.

Council leader Kim Forward, has endorsed this policy in a formal response to a question from Councillor Patmore, when she says: “Enforcement will not read any public queries that are greater than two pages, using the Council’s Complaint Policy as justification for these restrictions.”

When we spoke to HBC’s communication team this week and listed some of the issues that have been raised we received a short response that will do little to calm the debate and in some ways served to pour fuel on the fire.

HBC told us: “HBC’s approach to enforcement is consistent in respect of all sites in the borough and set out in our Planning Enforcement Policy which can be viewed on the council’s web site.

“Questions have been raised recently with the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) regarding the council’s approach to planning enforcement at Rocklands. The Ombudsman held in the council’s favour on the matter and found there to be no fault on the council’s part.”

That’s not, however, how local people see it.

According to representatives of the local Residents’ Association: “The LGO did not rule in the council’s favour on the matter and they most certainly did not make a decision that there was no fault on the council’s part, as a final decision on my complaint has not been made an is still under investigation.”

She says The original ‘Decision Notice’ sent from the LGO’s Assessment Team, on January 29th this year stated that the LGO would not investigate the complaint about how the council has dealt with an alleged breach of planning control, giving a number of reasons on why the case would not be pursued. She appealed that decision and heard this week that a review of her complaint is to be carried out.

She was told by the Ombudsman: “I have decided to re-open your complaint and forward it to our investigation team to consider in more detail.” The note from the LGO does say that this does not mean the complaint will be upheld, stressing that will be for the investigator to decide.

For Richard Heritage when it comes to planning enforcement he has a straightforward view on the approach of HBC, he says: “This lot cherry pick and only appear to deal with the easy stuff.”

He explains some of the cases he has been involved with: “I tried to get HBC to put and Enforcement notice with the Undercliff building site after the owner/developer walked away and it remained, as it is today, derelict!”

The site has become what is known as ‘Bona Vacantia’ meaning that it is in effect ownerless and by law it passes to the Crown.

The Grade II listed Burton Terrace in Archey Road, once part of Hastings College, was boarded up from 2009. It’s a site at risk of decay and vandalism, there have already been arson attempts there and all the period exterior lighting has been stolen. Despite asking for an Enforcement Order to be placed on the arch nothing has happened.

Another empty building in a serious situation and also with Grade II listing is the Pugin chapel at the Holy Child Jesus convent in St Leonards that has been shut since the early 1970s. It took four years of campaigning and the involvement of English Heritage before the chapel was included on the national ‘At Risk’ building register.

The register describes the chapel as: “…partly designed by Augustus Welby Pugin and completed by his son Edward Welby Pugin. The chapel has a good High Victorian Gothic interior and is a rare example of a Roman Catholic Chapel retaining the nuns’ choir… Some of the more urgent repairs to the chapel have started to be addressed.”

And the issue of Robsack Meadow, now designated a Local Nature Reserve is one that particularly upsets him.

“The campaign to save this large meadow all started in 2008 when Paddy Stephenson discovered HBC who own the site had intentions to build two apartment blocks on it. 

“Living not too far from it Paddy decided this had to be stopped. I teamed up with her and worked with her for the seven years it took to finally beat HBC and save the meadow. There were other supporters of course. But the bulk of the research, emails, letters, phone calls, press releases etc was between the two of us.

“In 2015 the Planning Inspector Richard Hollox investigated. We put together a 144 page dossier that Paddy presented. Hollox was impressed and said he would visit the site. Following his visit to the meadow he declared it should be removed from the local plan entirely and be designated as a Local Nature Reserve.

“So here we are triumphant in saving it. Paddy had achieved something of a real rarity up against this council. Roll forward now to 2017 when I happened to purely out of curiosity read the new Hastings and Rye Labour party manifesto. On page seven under the category of ‘Achievements’ I see this party stating how they achieved the Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status for Robsack.

“When I told Paddy she was furious as I was, bearing in mind no Labour councillor ever gave us support. We both sent a tranche of emails to councillors but had no response from anyone. Since 2017, I have had five letters in the local paper about this fabricated claim and Paddy had two. 

“I recently sent copies of all the letters printed. Together with a write up to Kim Forward as she is now leader and there it has remained in that manifesto. Their claim they saved the meadow.”

The controversial site earmarked for 192 new houses – even past reports by Hastings Borough Councils have labelled it a flood plain.

Next week we take a look at the Bulverhythe proposal which has received 107 objections so far and not just from members of the public, other councils and the Environment Agency don’t like the plan, the Environment Agency telling HBC: “We object in principal to the proposed development as it falls within a flood risk vulnerability category that is inappropriate to the Flood Zone in which the application site is located. The application is therefore contrary to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its associated planning practice guidance. We recommend that planning permission is refused on this basis.”

Local man Chris Dadswell says: “Damage from the proposed (flood) mitigation measures will be far reaching. The proposed erection of a wall across the valley for the construction of ‘The Combe Haven Sluice’, will likely be disastrous for the Filsham Reed Beds; the SSSI of Combe Haven Valley; areas of ancient woodland; 30 acres of scarce Sussex Fenland and possibly Crowhurst Village and The Combe Valley Way.

“What right has a developer to propose such a scheme?”

Please share your thoughts by using the comment facility below… we love to hear your views.

 

6 thoughts on “Never mind bite, when it comes to planning enforcement our local council seem reluctant even to bark!

  1. Thanks for this latest reminder of the Council’s persistently poor record on planning. How the officers can visit the Bunker and not measure it other than ‘visually’, or make site notes, is a professional travesty. Why the Planning Committee didn’t make a site visit is also deeply suspect.

    The Council say they are ‘consistent in respect of all sites in the borough’, but they’re not. Consider:

    Verminous abandoned house in Alma Terrace: no legal action for over a decade, until 2021.

    Temporary structure outside house in Alma Terrace: Planning Contravention Notice slapped on, pronto.

    When Cllrs voted to contest a Fern Road appeal, planning officers attended the appeal, and did nothing. The matter was complained about by Cllr Beaver — but there were no consequences.

    There was also the case of 4 Market Terrace, Central St Leonards (HS/FA/11/00871). Eventually it got planning permission. What was built was not what had permission, but the flouting of Conservation Area criteria was ignored.

    Or there’s 32-33 White Rock (HS/FA/18/00663) which is soon to rise up beside Palace Court. With its tiny rooms and back tower, It was approved under delegated powers in 2018: no committee meeting, no councillor comment. Even the Conservation Officer had nothing to say.

    Cases are so many. Members and officers could and should raise their performance level.

  2. Thanks for the article.

    HBC’s claim that they are “consistent in respect of all sites in the borough” is undermined by the contrast between the way they treat Rocklands and how they dealt with the “Eiffel tower”.

    Rocklands continue to get away with serial abuses of planning regulations whilst HBC take firm action against an individual householder.

    This exposes the inconsistences and distorted priorities of our Planning Department. Planning are renowned for turning a blind eye to far,far worse violations of planning regulations. Has this inconsistency anything to do with the fact that the tower builder is an individual householder and not a larger developer and probably does not have access to a good lawyer or other “influences”?

    A model of the Eiffel tower in Alma Terrace clearly needs draconian action. This is serious – unlike the unauthorised construction of 25 metres of walls, excavations steps and an access road at Rocklands in the iron age hill fort within a protected scheduled monument – which Planning have deemed as “too trivial” to take enforcement action.

    A formal Planning Contravention Notice was issued by HBC when the householder did not reply to letters from HBC.
    This contrasts with HBC actions at Rocklands. HBC asked Rocklands for evidence that some 12 metres of steps cut through the iron age hill fort and scheduled monument had been in place for more than 4 years (works that have been substantially complete for 4 years can be immune from Enforcement action) or to submit a retrospective application. . Rocklands did not reply with any evidence or submit an application.

    Rather than issue a formal Planning Contravention Notice HBC gave Rocklands the benefit of the doubt and concluded without any evidence that the steps may have been there for more than 4 years and if not the works were too trivial to take any action. SEG supplied evidence that the steps were not substantially complete until 2019 – this was ignored.

    The inconsistent approach to enforcement issues is worrying. This example raises the question why HBC treat Rocklands differently.

    HBC’s claim that “The Ombudsman held in the council’s favour on the matter and found there to be no fault on the council’s part” is untrue. HBC will happily spin and distort to protect themselves. I know of several examples where HBC have spun Ombudsman and Information Commission decisions that found against HBC. HBC preferred to claim that they found in their favour rather than take on board board the rulings and modify their behaviour.

  3. What a superb overview at some of the controversies and travesties here with planning, development and enforcement.
    The Bunker and Ecclesbourne landslip issues are from what I see fraught with so much mismangement and furtive issues. This has to be crying out for an official inquiry alone. All we the public have is the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) to file a complaint about a local authority.
    Where many who have filed a complaint will attest to their extraordinary decisions in favour of councils.

    The Undercliff site had already suffered a serious landslip in the early 70’s and had shuttering to stabilise it after a proposed development was abandoned. Then in 2004 HBC granted a “Certificate of Lawful Use” to allow another developer to resurrect the right to file a new planning application. Many local residents including myself wrote objections based up on the instability of this site. Ignored by the planning officers and committee it was passed. In 2007 during the build there was a repeated collapse in the same place with the shuttering buckling. It eventually resulted in the developer walking away. A few years later HBC hired a geo-technical company Coffey to produce a report costing around £4,000 of tax payers money. And nothing came of that.
    The Pugin chapel actually a Grade II* listed building is a jewel of a historical structure and the only remaining one of two as chapels in the county. Further unknown is a unique Italian styled building of extreme architectural merit also forgotten. Being located behind the walls it goes unnoticed and in private ownership.
    In both these examples no Ward councillors responded to say or do something. I guess it was too much a difficult task for them.

    Between the failure of Enforcement actions and to allow several listed buildings fall into decay is shows how little councillors and officers care about the local environment.
    This article displays the serious short falls within the entire HBC network

  4. Reading this article it seems obvious to me that developers recognise how poor HBC is at policing laws it is meant to enforce. This has led to developers taking advantage – with impunity! So it seems the community can look forward to HBC being led by the nose as developers exploit opportunities presented – all under the mantra of ‘desperate housing need’. Talk about dealing your card from a position of strength – developers will abuse to get maximum returns, knowing HBC will just roll over to get their tummy tickled…

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