It’s not what you know…

In his valedictory interviews with the local papers, Jamie Adams blamed his downfall on “keyboard warriors” and “two councillors with venomous and personal blogs”.

He also told the Pembrokeshire Herald that the opposition had given him a hard time by arguing over “minutiae” such as the future of the council’s planning delegation panel.

“It’s seen as best practice and yet an hour of council time was wasted debating it in March when we should have been concentrating on the budget. What a joke! You have to wonder sometimes whether some members are here to improve Pembrokeshire or to promote themselves.”

For the uninitiated, the planning delegation panel is a four-member body to which councillors can apply to have applications taken out of officers’ hands for determination by the planning committee.

My own concerns about the undemocratic practices of this panel go back at least ten years and I was heartened when in 2008 the newly-appointed monitoring officer (Laurence Harding) took the same view (Clipped wings) and warned members of the panel not to let non-material considerations influence their decisions.

Sadly, his wise advice fell on stony ground as is amply demonstrated by a recent case promoted by ex-deputy leader of the council, ex-Cllr Keith Lewis.

This involves an application for a site known as Bwlch Gwynt in ex-Cllr Lewis’ Crymych ward.

The site has a long and chequered history first appearing on the planning radar back in 2007 when an application was submitted for an agricultural dwelling located according to a contemporary report “to the rear of the derelict building” that already existed on the site.

The problem was that the 40-acre holding in question was home to a mere 150 sheep and planning officers considered this insufficient to justify the need for a full-time worker on site.

Normally this application would have been dealt with under delegated powers, but, having got wind of the officer’s intention to issue a refusal notice, the, then, local member Lyn Davies applied to the planning delegation panel to have the application determined by the planning committee, where, one suspects, he hoped to get a more sympathetic hearing from his mates.

I have to say this worked a treat because the planning committee ignored the planning officer’s advice and gave consent, as did full council when this major departure from policy came before it for ratification.

However, this was not the end of the matter because the council had to report this departure from policy to the Welsh Government which decided to take the application out of the council’s hands for determination by an independent planning inspector and in due course the development was blocked.

It is interesting to note that, in order to head off any suggestion that this agricultural worker’s dwelling might be better provided by restoring the “derelict building” on the site rather than the proposed new-build, the applicant’s agent told the planning inspector in 2006 that: “The ruin that exists today is beyond repair has little value other than as a source for building stone…”

In May 2011 an application for a new-build rural enterprise dwelling on the site was refused, as was another in December that year.

The applicant appealed the second refusal, but without success.

It seems that there was a change of plan and, instead of building a new dwelling on the site, in September 2016 the applicant turned his attention to the reinstatement of the “ruin”.

In November 2016 this was refused by a planning officer acting under delegated powers.

According to the planning officer’s report:

It was evident from the site visit that the “building” was in fact a ruin. Partial walls were present however it was apparent that many had collapsed or were leaning significantly. The walls that do remain are minimal and for the most part do not extend up to the ground floor door and window levels. Therefore a significant amount of rebuilding would be required for this proposal which would be tantamount to a new dwelling in the countryside.

As such the proposal would constitute an unjustified new residential unit in the open countryside which would be contrary to both national policy and guidance set out in Planning Policy Wales (PPW), Technical Advice Note (TAN) 6 and to the requirements of policies SP 1 (Sustainable Development), SP 16 (The Countryside) and GN.26 (Residential Development) of the Local Development Plan (adopted 28 February 2013).

Undeterred, on 5 January this year the applicant tried again, but according to the planning department “No additional or new information has been submitted with this current application.”

This seems like an example of Albert Einstein’s definition of madness: “Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.”

However, there was method in this madness because local member Keith Lewis applied to the planning delegation panel to have the application determined by the planning committee rather than by officers under delegated powers.

In his report to the planning delegation panel the head of planning advised that Cllr Lewis’ application for the removal of officers’ delegated powers met none of the three specified criteria, but, that notwithstanding, the panel decided that it should be reserved for the planning committee.

The panel’s proceedings can be viewed here.

The application was scheduled for the planning committee meeting on 21 March when it was recommended for refusal on the grounds that: “The proposed development, due to the extent of rebuilding that would be required would be tantamount to the erection of a new dwelling. As such the proposal would constitute an unjustified new residential unit in the open countryside which would be contrary to both national policy and guidance…”

There was also a reprise of the site’s planning history including the bit about the ruined building only being of use as a source of building stone.

For whatever reason the application was withdrawn, but it did reappear at the meeting on 25 April only to be deferred again because of the pre-election purdah period.

However, in the five weeks between 21 March and 25 April, the building appears to have undergone a remarkable transformation because the ruin that existed in 2006 and “is beyond repair [and] has little value other than as a source for building stone…” was now being recommended for approval because:

“The amount of new build would not be extensive and in terms of the overall structure (cottage and attached outbuilding) it has been calculated that as 75% of the building currently exists the amount of new build would equate to 25%.”

Left for another ten years it might well rebuild itself completely.

The application is now down for determination by next Tuesday’s meeting of the planning committee with a recommendation for approval.

Unfortunately for Keith Lewis he lost his seat at May’s election so he won’t be around to enjoy this triumph of influence peddling over the rule of law.

I should say that I have no objection to this ruin being rebuilt.

Indeed, as an old-fashioned liberal, I believe the present planning regime is far too restrictive.

However, who is allowed to rebuild an old ruin shouldn’t depend on whether they have influential friends on the council.