Friday 13 January 2012

Planning news - an unstable planning system

A few short weeks ago I reported on plans by Carmarthenshire County Council to build a waste recycling centre in the middle of the countryside near Newcastle Emlyn at a hamlet known locally as Five Roads (here). The planning application has now suddenly been withdrawn, apparently because the council's strapped finances mean that there is no budget for it. Residents have been warned that this may change in 2015 if the budgetary position has improved.

Understandably, local people were strongly opposed to having a site surrounded by high security fencing and floodlit at night so close to their homes - in a couple of cases just yards away.

According to the application, the site would have employed 4 full-time and 4 part-time staff, but given the remoteness of the site and the small population it would have served - a catchment area of no more than 10,000 people - it is improbable that all of those jobs would have materialised.

As objectors also pointed out, it would have made far more sense and been far more cost-effective for the county council to break a habit of a lifetime and negotiate with neighbouring Ceredigion to allow residents to use the existing waste recycling centre near Cardigan.

A public meeting with council officials finally took place on 11 January, the day after the application had been withdrawn. Once again this highlights the council's very strange understanding of what constitutes consultation. One of the officers present appeared to give local people the impression that the council had not fully appreciated all of the potential problems with the site, and that alternatives closer to Newcastle Emlyn might be sought.

If this is a true reflection of what was said at the meeting, the officer deserves praise for being so honest, and it would certainly mark a departure from Carmarthenshire's usual policy of always being right and never needing to apologise for anything. Time will tell.

In Cardigan itself the twists and turns over two major supermarket developments are becoming increasingly surreal. Just before Christmas the Tivyside Advertiser reported that the proposed Sainsbury's development at the Bath House site was again uncertain because of land stability problems. The store is supposed to be opening in July this year, but not a single brick has yet been laid.

Just up the road, Tesco eventually succeeded in getting planning permission to expand its existing store, despite concerns in the town about the impact on the High Street.

The plan would involve extending the store to sell a wider range of non-food goods and the construction of an underground car park. Now there are rumours from credible sources that the expansion has hit the buffers because stability problems.

Known land stability problems do not appear to worry planners in neighbouring Carmarthenshire, however. In Newcastle Emlyn, an area of the town notorious for subsidence problems is earmarked for several new developments, including a supermarket and more housing.

A few years ago the county council had to spend a huge amount of money shoring up the main road and anchoring it to the bedrock to prevent it from sliding towards the river. A couple of years later, it found no problem in giving planning permission for a development of allegedly affordable homes along the northern edge of the same road. Four of the houses were sold or rented out just before subsidence started. The subsidence was so bad that an access road built on the site, in preparation for more houses, looked as though it had been hit by an earthquake, and was closed.

Two of the houses have remained empty and are deemed to be uninhabitable. It is understood that litigation is pending to try to sort out compensation for the unfortunate homeowners, and there are rumours that it may cost millions to stabilise the site, with one option being to demolish the whole lot.

Against that background, you might think that the County Council's planners might have though twice about putting in a neighbouring site into the proposed Local Development Plan for housing development, and the council was certainly warned about this during the consultation process.

Despite this, work has now begun on the site, with an access road having been built by Tai Cantref, the housing association, in the weeks running up to Christmas. It seems planning permission was granted for a special needs unit and three houses.

To allow housing developments on land known to be highly unstable would appear to be negligent, to say the least. Whether the local authority can be held legally responsible for damage caused by subsidence in such cases, I do not know. But it certainly has a moral responsibility towards ordinary people whose lives are likely to be blighted for years while insurers, developers and planners argue over something that should never have happened in the first place.

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