Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Tough Planning Decisions

It was my casting vote today that was responsible for the application for a homeless Hostel in Wisbech (on the site of the Queens Hotel) being approved. I suspect my name is mud amongst some, so I thought I would write an unusually long blog post to explain my motives.

Prior to committee I had decided that I would vote with the main committee rather than abstain and reserve my vote simply for a Chairman’s casting vote (which is what I normally do). I have said before that I would do this where I felt strongly about an application; it is something that, on occasion, I have done in the past. The nature of the previous debate and the huge press furore was what made up my mind to do this yesterday. I felt that, for such a sensitive, controversial and important application, the Chairman of the committee should stand up and be counted, in whatever direction - I cannot recall a decision of such controversy over recent years. That was my decision and one that I did not discuss with anyone prior to the committee meeting. As it happens I ended up voting in favour and then making a casting vote to support.

Whilst I understand some of the concerns that were expressed on the day, the debate today was not about revisiting a Cabinet policy decision to support the Ferry Project (who will run the hostel), it was about deciding whether this particular scheme was acceptable in planning terms. Part of my role as Chairman is to ensure that crucial aspects of that debate are brought out.

The first issue is conservation. The most important aspect of the building is the frontage and the interior. The major change was a conservatory/function room at the rear. I raised this issue about the important Conservation issues as part of the debate to allow challenge. But English Heritage had supported the application in writing and the Wisbech Society were broadly supportive when they spoke. In my view there was not sufficient argument to challenge the comment that the conservatory was not in a vital area in Conservation terms. There was some concern expressed by one speaker about the need for a lift in the interior but, to be fair, there are very few uses to which this building could be put that would not require a lift.

The next question is whether this building was suitable for the sort of mixed use proposed - especially given its location. There are a number of examples around the country where similar schemes operate in historic buildings in sensitive areas, Dartmouth, St Martin’s in the Field (Trafalgar Square) are a couple (but there are more). So, I felt someone would need to demonstrate why this location differed, why what was acceptable elsewhere was not acceptable on the Queens Hotel site - another point that I raised because I felt it was critical to the discussion. It is not enough just to say not here, the debate, in my view, needed to be about why this was unique compared to elsewhere. If there had been enough robust planning based challenge to that comment, it almost certainly would have made me vote differently because I felt this was the critical aspect of the debate. In my view that evidence was not offered at committee so, again, it was quite clear in my mind that the presumption was in favour.

Thirdly, there was an issue about the fear of anti-social behaviour. There was a great deal of evidence about problems with Mill Road, (the Ferry Project’s current location in Wisbech). But there was also evidence put forward that many reasons for this were because of the unsuitable nature of those premises, something that would be addressed by the use of this location. Furthermore, it was confirmed that the main entrance for residents of the hostel would be from the rear of the property - thus minimising problems at the front. Coupled with this, there will be a robust behaviour policy and Fenland and the police will have representation through the management board. Therefore I felt that the weight of evidence was in favour; especially given that the project is to be put forward for “Secured by Design” accreditation.

There were a number of other issues raised, one was the weight of opposition in an online newspaper survey, which had suggested that 87% were against the application. I am afraid I, personally, cannot offer that significant weight. Those surveys are great for creating news headlines, but it is easy to fix online surveys like this; by one individual voting on a number of computers, or by deleting cookies and re-voting. Secondly, letters to the authority have reasons for opposition on them - which allows weight to be given, not just to the number of letters, but also the nature of any opposition or support. Thirdly, whilst 87% was mentioned, there was no mention of exactly how many votes made up that 87%. For that reason I chose to give weight to representations to the authority, and again, in this instance, I felt there was a slight weight of evidence in favour.

I hope, this explains why I voted like I did, and indeed why I voted. It would have been easy for me to sit on my hands and watch a vital decision for Fenland go either way and then say “Not me guv - I didn’t vote”. I chose to do what I thought was right. I can say quite categorically that if I had considered that the weight of evidence had been against the application I would have voted against.

The rules around planning are such that it is permissible to enter a planning meeting with a predisposed view (“I think I will vote this way, but we’ll see), it is not permissible to enter with a predetermined view (I will definitely vote this way, whatever is said). I was definitely in the former camp not the latter, but in my view the crucial issues at the debate fell in favour.

I should add, it is up to planning committee members to come to their own independent decisions and I respect the views of all of the committee. This just explains my own thinking and is, in no way, a criticism of others.

I now look forward to this hostel opening, and being an asset to Wisbech and Fenland as well as helping some very vulnerable people to develop and improve their lives. We should be in no doubt that this is the intention of both Fenland and of the Ferry Project.

Aside from that decision, it was a tough meeting today, with a number of challenging issues. From a local perspective, an application in Market Street in Whittlesey was refused because the flats above the shop were considered to be over intensive. A tough decision this, but a good debate was had and, on balance, I think the right decision was made. Of course, the applicant now has the right to either appeal to the Planning Inspectorate or resubmit a revised application.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who lives on the a605 Eastrea Road end, I personally would not welcome a supermarket further up the road. This is due to the volume of traffic that it will create and this road is already too congested now. Also why don't the nice farmers who are selling their land to Sainsburys sell them a little more and then pay for a bypass thereby not leaving the rest of us with the unbearable consequences of increased traffic, the noise and the fumes from such.

    the road is far too busy at the moment and despite this is still regularly used as race track, as is Peterborough Road I might add. Where are the police? Still in March I would think!!

    Seriously this road CANNOT SUSTAIN more traffic. The cars parked opposite my home add the the problem of the flow of traffic but Cambs Coiunty Council say they are a speed reducing item.....ha ha tell that to the people whose cars keep getting hit. This is also the case along Peterborough road where my poor daughter in laws car was hit yesterday and by all accounts is a right off. Cars here in Eastrea road and Peterborough road regularly speed around 50-60 miles per hour and no one does a thing about it.

    So Sainsbury's if you want the store in Eastrea Road pay for a bypass as well please and get your nice farmer friends to contribute a bit of land free!!!!