There was a whiff of being “up before” a Parliamentary Select Committee when district councillor Barry Marlowe attended a meeting of Uckfield Town Council plans committee.
Cllr Marlowe’s appearance looked innocuous enough, appearing as an agenda item as: Guest Speaker Cllr B. Marlowe.
It soon transpired that Cllr Marlowe, Conservative, Ridgewood, had been asked to attend and explain his decision with regard to an outline planning application to build homes at 40 New Barn Lane, Ridgewood, writes Paul Watson.
The application had been opposed by the town plans committee.
Cllr Marlowe had not used his power to have the application determined by Wealden District Council plans committee but had, instead, left it to be decided by a council planning officer under delegated powers.
A full of explanation of this scheme of delegation works is given at the end of this story.
Under those delegated powers, the planning application was approved.
What unfolded illuminated how planning decisions are made, the role of the local (Wealden council) member in those decisions and factors limiting the district council’s powers to refuse applications.
Objections were not listened to
Cllr James Anderson, Trust Independent, Uckfield North, asked Cllr Marlowe to explain his actions in view of the town council’s opposition and why the “many, many” objections from local residents were not listened to.
He wanted to know the reasons for letting the application through under the scheme of delegation.
Cllr Marlowe said: “I wasn’t happy with this application from the beginning, any more than the planning officer was.
‘Call the application in for decision’
“There were several occasions when yourself and several others asked me whether I was going to ‘call the application in’.
“The answer at that time was ‘no’, I wasn’t going to call it in because I hadn’t enough information. I wanted to wait and see exactly what was going to develop.
“Over a period of time the matter of drainage was resolved and the matter of access was resolved from the highways department.”
The county highways department had no objections and “as you probably know, that’s the end of it”.
Tied by county highways department decision
Cllr Marlowe said: “We don’t have any influence over that and we are completely tied by that.”
He said he saw the relevant planning officer who said there was no single reason to refuse the application but still felt this was not good enough.
The applicant was told that the plan for four houses with garages would not get approval from an officer and would probably go to committee.
“The applicant decided it was probably in his best advantage if he changed the application. He said if I change it to four houses, four dwellings and parking. Does that sound better?
“As far as I was concerned that sounded better. Now, there cannot be four, four-bedroom houses.”
He said after that he left the decision to the officer to deal with under delegated powers.
Objectors ‘denied a forum’
Cllr Duncan Bennett, Trust Independent, New Town, said the failure to send the decision to a committee meeting for decision deprived objectors of a forum to make their point.
Reducing the scale of the development was better, he said, but not necessarily the best deal for local residents.
Cllr Marlowe went on: “The reason I didn’t think it necessary to bring it to committee – and it may not be the reason you like – is the objections by local resdidents unfortunately didn’t fall into the category of legitimate planning objections.
Local objections are not enough for refusal
“So, just on the basis of the objections of local residents is not enough under planning rules to say ‘because we have had a lot objections’, it will be thrown out. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
“It’s not very good but that’s the way it works.”
“I think that was the best deal we could get at the time. No longer are we going to get very large houses. We are going to get four small houses.”
Wealden makes planning decision
Cllr Anderson challenged Cllr Marlowe over his remark that if the highways department didn’t object on highways grounds “that was the end of it” and no refusal could be based on those grounds.
“Wealden are the planning authority, the final decision makers,” he pointed out.
Cllr Marlowe responded: “At district council, we have no influence over highways at all.
“Their report tends to be solely based on the access and safety, or otherwise, to a particular site.
“So, when speakers say ‘it’s very dangerous those parked cars up and down the road and it is very difficult to get within half-a-mile of this particular site without finding parked cars all over the place, the highways department does not take any notice of that.
“They only look at access to this particular site.
“Once they have made their decision and sent the report, there is nothing we can do about it.”
Overturned on appeal
He said any small development – such as one for four houses – would likely to be overturned on appeal, if approval had been denied by a planning authority.
“The rules are so tight. Basically, the document says ‘approve everything unless you have a really strong reason not to’.
“This is a terrible constraint against planning authorities but it is the same all over the country.”
These are the hard facts
Cllr Marlowe summed up: “The hard facts are, the way the whole system is designed is that the planning authority does not have to take any notice of anybody.
“It is not the thing, perhaps, that you would like to hear but those are the hard facts.
“That’s a surprise, isn’t it but that’s the truth.”
Question of transparency
He said in the case of the New Barn Lane application he made sure every application was read by both himself and the planning officer.
“Just by saying, ‘we can have them aired in public isn’t going to change anything at all,” he said.
Cllr Bennett responded: “No, it is too transparent, perhaps.”
Cllr Marlowe: “It is a sad fact that the consultees do not have to be listened to.”
How the Wealden District Council scheme of delegation works for planning:
Once the planning officer has evaluated all the information received on an application, it is assessed against the council’s approved planning policies and other relevant matters.
Under the current scheme of delegation all matters are delegated to Head of Planning; however there are exceptions to this – two key exceptions are as follows:
1. If during consultation the council receives three letters from residents or other third parties which are contrary to the proposed planning application officer recommendation; or
2. The parish /town council consultation response is contrary to the proposed officer recommendation, where they give valid material planning reasons ..
In these cases the planning application report it is referred to the local planning Ward member who can refer it to planning committee, but the member must give material planning reasons why the application should go to the planning committee
There are other exceptions to the scheme of delegation i.e. if the planning application is from a WDC employee or councillor, then it will automatically go to committee
Once the planning officer has evaluated all the information received on an application, it is assessed against the Council’s approved planning policies and other relevant matters. If it is considered inappropriate for the application to have a decision issued under delegated powers (view details of the Council’s Scheme of Delegation - Section 7.1, from page 34), the application will be reported to Members of the appropriate Development Control Committee for decision.
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