Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Griffiths to the rescue! Or maybe not.

The announcement by John Griffiths, Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, on the news and shortly afterwards on the cringe worthy Wales Report last Sunday, that the Welsh Government will in future insist that any plans for new housing which involve flood risk must be referred back to the Welsh Government, will not have given much comfort to the hundreds of households across Wales which have seen their homes flooded this year. And as Plaid Wrexham has pointed out, the announcement seems to be another case of smoke and mirrors because the shots are called by the Planning Inspectorate which is not devolved and therefore does not come under the minister's control.

What the minister's "in future" means in the case of existing planning applications will be an early test of whether this announcement was anything more than a PR manoeuvre to be seen to be doing something - anything - after the recent catastrophic flooding in Rhuthun and Llanelwy/St Asaph.

Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire continues to fill various in-trays in Cardiff, with planning topping the list as usual. The full list of current applications under consideration for call-in by the Welsh Government can be found here. At first sight, Carmarthenshire is just one of a fairly large number of local authorities whose judgment is being called into question, but whereas most outside Carmarthenshire concern minor cases (a wind turbine or two, a couple of planning enforcement cases, a piggery, a slurry lagoon, etc.), the haul from Carmarthenshire comprises a raft of major proposed developments. These include the byzantine battle over Stradey Park (450 proposed residential units); a proposed development of 336 houses just outside    Ammanford; a proposed new "eco-park" and housing development at Machynys near Llanelli; and a major proposed redevelopment of the former Grillo Zinc Oxide Works at Burry Port.

No other local authority has generated a case load anything like as large and smelly, so Carl Sargeant's recent decision to hold his nose and reject calls for a public inquiry into planning in Carmarthenshire is even more surprising.

The Stradey Park development will be one of the first tests of just how serious John Griffiths is about clamping down on building in a high flood risk area.

Almost equally extraordinary is the proposed development of 336 houses at Penybanc, just outside Ammanford (planning report here).

The developer here is Swallow Property Developments Ltd. which gives its main place of business as an address in the tax haven of Guernsey. The agent representing the developer gives an address in Berkshire.You can judge from that how much they have the interests of a Welsh community at heart.

Originally Swallow put in an application for 141 houses, and planning permission was duly granted. Now the developer believes that a mere 141 houses falls far short of the true potential of the site, and is asking to up the number to 336, with parking for 580 cars.

Nobody in the area or any of the various agencies consulted has a good word to say for the proposals, apart from the developers, their agents and the planning officers.

As you read through the planning officer's report, red lights flash, alarm bells ring and just about every page contains information which screams out "No!". For example, the Environment Agency warns that it could lead to increased pollution in the Carmarthen Bay Special Area of Conservation and the Burry Inlet. The defunct Welsh Language Board examined two Language Impact Assessments and warned that it would have an adverse impact on the Welsh language; it also questioned the need for such a large development. The Countryside Council for Wales expressed concerns and objected to the application. And hundreds of local people took the time to write in to object.

The list and extent of objections goes on and on, and the planning officer's report sweeps the lot aside. It takes the Welsh Language Board to task for what it considers to be an inadequate and flawed analysis, although common sense screams at the top of its voice that the proposals would undermine the language, and that no amount of bilingual street signs will help.

At one point the report acknowledges that the proposals are not consistent with the council's existing UDP, but concludes that that is all right because it will only be eating into land designated as amenity land.

Naturally, despite all the evidence stacked up against it and the wishes of the local community, the officers recommended acceptance of the plan. The Planning Committee decided first that it had better go and take a look, which is where the matter currently rests.

Penybanc itself lies in Saron ward which is represented by Peter Cooper (Lab) and Alun Davies (Plaid). Cllr Cooper, who is a member of the planning committee, has spoken strongly against the proposal, and will therefore have no further part to play in the process. Cllr Davies is biding his time.

If, incredibly, the application is not called in, we will face the interesting prospect of a Labour councillor having to stand by while his party colleagues do as they are told by the officers, backed by a motley collection of super-annuated "Independents" who won't even stand up for their own wards, leave alone anybody else's.

As Cllr Cooper may be about to experience at first hand, the quasi-judicial exercise of authority in Carmarthenshire makes even Judge Jeffries look like a paragon of fairness and impartiality.

Approved! Next!

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