May 31 2005

Size matters


Last week, I drew attention to the dodgy agricultural planning consent awarded to farming company Cwmbetws Ltd, one of whose directors is Cllr John Davies, Leader of both the Independent Political (sic) Group and the County Council.
Having done some further research, I have come to the conclusion that this is even dodgier than I first thought.
In Pembrokeshire, as in the rest of the country, there is a general presumption against development in the open countryside.
There are certain exceptions to this rule which are set out in policy HS9 which begins: "Proposals for new residential development in the open countryside will not be permitted except where it is clearly needed [my emphasis] to house a worker employed in agriculture or forestry who must live on the spot [my emphasis], rather than in a nearby settlement."
The situation is also governed by Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) guidelines; known in the trade as TAN (Technical Advice Notes, as you ask).
TAN 6 at paragraphs 46 and 47 reads:
"46. New permanent accommodation cannot be justified on agricultural grounds unless the farming enterprise is economically viable. A financial test is necessary for this purpose, and to provide evidence of the size of dwelling which the unit can sustain.
47. Agricultural dwellings should be of a size commensurate with the established functional requirement. Dwellings which are unusually large in relation to the agricultural needs of the unit, or unusually expensive to construct in relation to the income it can sustain in the long-term, should not normally be permitted. It is the requirements of the enterprise rather than of the owner or occupier which are relevant to determining the size of dwelling that is appropriate to a particular holding."
Paragraph 47 is intended to plug the gap between the justification for the need (to have a full-time herdsman living on the spot) and the agricultural occupancy condition which merely requires that the dwelling is occupied by someone employed full time in agriculture or whose last full-time job was in agriculture i.e to prevent people smuggling through a large retirement home under cover of the need for a farm worker's cottage.
According to the report to planning committee, the last three years' accounts of the farming business have been inspected and show "a healthy profit", so the test in paragraph 46 would appear to be met.
Regarding para 47, as I said last week, a dwelling of 2,800 sq ft seems rather large in respect to the "established functional need", which is to house a full-time herdsman.
I am not alone in this view it would seem.
On 13 April 2005, the planning officer wrote to the applicant's agent on this very point.
He wrote: "Scale- The advice set out in TAN 6 requires new agricultural workers dwellings to satisfy both a financial and a functional test.
Paragraph 47 [see above] states that dwellings should be of a size commensurate with the established functional requirement. In this case the functional requirement is for a herdsman/GFW and as such the dwelling should reflect that functional requirement. I do not consider that the proposal which has a gross floor area (excluding the garage) of approximately 315 square metres (3400 square feet) is of a scale reflecting the functional requirements of the holding. I would suggest that a gross floorspace in the region of 115 to 140 square metres (1250 to 1500 square feet) would be more appropriate to the functional needs of the holding."

I should explain that the original plan was for a truly massive dwelling of 3,400 sq ft rather than the ordinarily massive scheme of 2,800 sq ft that was eventually given approval.
Contrast what the planning department had to say on the 13 April with what appeared in the report to committee on 24 May when the 2,800 sq ft dwelling was recommended for approval
The committee was told: "Although the proposed dwelling is only a 3 bedroom unit it has a gross external floor space of 260 square metres (2,800 square feet) and consideration needs to be given to a financial test to establish the size of dwelling that the agricultural unit can sustain. An assessment has been made of the farm accounts over the past three years and there is evidence of a healthy profit sufficient to fund the size of dwelling proposed. As such the farming enterprise is considered to be economically viable and capable of sustaining the size of dwelling proposed."
Notice that the functional test in paragraph 47, so clearly set out in the letter of 13 April, has fled the scene.
Four questions occur to Old Grumpy.
1. Why was a dwelling of 2,800 sq ft - double the size considered "appropriate" less than six weeks earlier - being recommended for approval by the planning officer?

2. Why was there no mention in the report to councillors of paragraph 47 even though as is clear from the letter of 13 April 2005 that the planning officer was fully aware of it?

3. Why, after three of the committee (Cllrs John Cole, Tony Brinsden and Malcolm Calver) had raised the issue of the size of the dwelling, weren't the implications of paragraph 47 explained to the members? Cllr Calver had even obtained a copy of paragraph 47 which he began to read out only to be silenced by the Chairman, Cllr Bill Hitchings.

4. Would these tests have been finessed in this way if the applicant hadn't been a company of which the leader of the council is a director?

Not surprisingly, given the assurances of officers that this application was on all fours with policy, when it came to the vote the application was passed by 19 - 1 (Cllr Calver) with one recorded abstention (Cllr Brinsden), though Cllrs Cole and Moira Lewis assure me that they also abstained.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the planning committee was seriously misinformed over this application.
Or as former member Philip Llewellyn put it, in the not dissimilar case of Enfield (see A cunning plan) they were "led up the garden path."
All this, I'm afraid, amounts to a unnacceptable disregard for planning policy and a corruption of democracy, itself.
I have forwarded all the information on which this article is based to the Western Telegraph.
I concluded my accompanying note with the words: "As you will know, I have the strongly held view that the role of a free press in a democratic society is the expose this sort of chicanery..
I live in hope!"
Hope disappointed, or hope fulfilled - we shall see in the morning.

Plans of the herdsman's cottage can be seen at Cwmbetws

Pure motives


One of my fellow councillors asked me if I would still be interested in the Cwmbetws planning application if someone other that Cllr John Davies was involved.
The flip answer to that is: no, because if anyone else had submitted this application they would have received a swift refusal notice.
But I think I know what he was getting at; our old friend the personal vendetta.
On this theory, my investigations into various matters, especially the activities of Cllr Brian Hall, are motivated by personal dislike and are therefore not to be taken seriously.
As I've said before, I don't do vendettas, but even if I did it would make no difference in the Hall case.
I think we need to distinguish between two sorts of evidence, here.
Firstly, there is evidence personal to me.
And, secondly, there is the evidence that exists independently of me.
If the question of the veracity of Cllr Hall's expense claims hinged on the fact that I'd said I'd seen him in a particular place at a particular time, then my motives and credibility would be an issue.
However, the evidence is in the form of expense sheets and timed receipts submitted by Cllr Hall, himself, and exists completely independently of me.
The facts are that Cllr Hall bought lunch at the motorway service station near Magor at 1.08 pm and also claimed to have left Pembroke Dock at 2.00 pm the same day to travel to a meeting in Swansea.
I am not responsible for Magor being 125 miles from Pembroke Dock; nor the fact that there are 52 minutes (0.86 hrs) between 1.08 pm and 2.00 pm; nor the rules of arithmetic that lead to the conclusion that, for this to be true, Cllr Hall would have needed to average 144 mph (204 mph if we allow 15 minutes to eat his lunch).
If motives are to be questioned, I suggest a good place to start would be with those who have engaged in a long-running cover-up of this affair.
In the present case I was neither responsible for drafting the law on agricultural planning consents nor submitting the application.
As for my record of opposing dubious planning decisions, anyone who has the time to go to Milford Haven library and consult the back numbers of the Mercury will find several of my articles criticising the arbitrary nature of a planning process which has led to a widespread belief among the people of Pembrokeshire that, when it comes to getting planning consent, having friends in high places will always trump the council's planning policies.
Indeed, the very first article I posted on this website concerned the infamous Enfield case (see A cunning plan); a subject to which I shall return next week.
And, it so happens, what first got me interested in the machinations of the planning committee was an Ombudsman's report back in 1988 into a bit of chicanery regarding a planning consent in Johnston.
This involved a Mr Bernie Green who applied to build a dwelling on a piece of land somewhere behind The Vine.
The site was outwith the village limits and the committee, quite rightly, followed the advice of Director of Planning, Roger Anderson and refused the application.
The land no longer being of any use to him, Mr Green sold it at agriculural valuation.
Imagine his surprise, when, less than two years later, and against the clear recommendation of Mr Anderson, the planning committee granted consent to the new owner even though the land remained outside the village limits
Unfortunately, the Ombudsman was unable to find any actual maladministration but it is clear from his report that he found aspects of the case troubling; not least the fact that the membership of the planning committee was substantially the same on both occasions.
For myself, I find arbitrary justice utterly unacceptable whether meted out by a committee of elected members or a despotic dictator.
Arguably, the elected committee is the more dangerous because its disreputable activities are concealed beneath a cloak of constitutional respectability.
What encourages me is that the vast majority of people I speak with value equality before the law just as much as I do, so it is difficult to understand why they elect so many people who apparently don't.
During the debate on the Cwmbetws application, in response to the constant interruptions by the Chairman Bill Hitchings, Cllr Tony Brinsden was moved to ask: "Are we in Pembrokeshire or Zimbabwe, Mr Chairman?"
Good question! because neither is governed by the rule of law.


Qualified delight

I must admit I laughed out loud when I heard the news on Sunday night that the French electorate had given a good kicking to Europe's political elite.
With the promise of more to come when the Dutch go to the polls tomorrow, it should be a happy time for us Eurosceptics.
But a moment's quiet reflection convinces me that we are entering some pretty choppy waters.
What has become clear in the couple of days since Sunday is that those who voted no in the French referendum are suffering from some rather dangerous delusions.
On the one hand they sought to punish M Chirac for the persistent high unemployment and low growth in the French economy, while at the same time resisting the one thing that could cure the problem: economic reform.
It seems that the French are determined to defend the 35 hour week, long summer holidays and all the other things that go to make up what is known as the European social model against the intrusion of Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism.
Germany is in a similarly parlous situation with even the modest reforms proposed by Mr Schroder causing a massive loss of electoral support.
There are three dangers in this:
1. That, in order to prove what a good European he is, Mr Blair will feel compelled to accept a degree of Franco-German corporatism.

2. An unreformed Euroland economy will continue its journey down the tubes and a country, or countries, will eventually become ungovernable, and worst of all

3. The Euro, a currency without a country, will collapse, causing world-wide financial mayhem.
The hope must be that, having got themselves into this mess, Europe's political elite can organise an orderly retreat.
And it is not just on the continent that people have untenble views on economic issues.
The other day, a man being interviewed about pensions on the Today programme was asked whether he preferred retiring later, saving more or having a smaller pension.
"I don't see why I should have to accept any of those options" he told the interviewer.
And I can't see why two and two shouldn't make five.

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