Thursday 8 March 2012

Last Chance To See - March Council Meeting (Part 2)

The meeting next turned its attention to what is called the Carmarthen West Planning Brief, a plan to build a vast new housing development on the outskirts of the town.

First up was Cllr Alan Speake, who reminded the council that this controversial plan had been on the books for many years - since 2002 in fact, although it was not formally adopted as part of the current Unitary Development Plan for the county until 2006.

In the latest round of consultations which ended in February 2011, some 100 responses were received, the majority opposing the scheme. Throughout the long history of the plan, in fact, there has been consistent and strong opposition to it from the public. Those in favour would seem to be developers and some businesses which argue that a larger population would mean more business.

The area covered by the plan is huge, extending to 130 hectares, and planning permission has already been granted for around 200 homes, plus a care home and bungalows for independent living. Within the site boundaries are 15 listed buildings, while the rest is open and beautiful countryside. The Supplementary Planning Guidance is worth a look for anyone who appreciates good photography - lots of beautiful shots of green fields, trees and country lanes - all to be built over.

Under the plan considered by councillors, up to 450 homes could be built up to 2016 when the UDP comes to an end. It would be superseded by the proposed new LDP under which some 1,200 houses could be built on the site.

The head of planning, Eifion Bowen, dismissed concerns about flood risk because of increased run-off, and his only concession to objectors effectively boiled down to phasing of development. He acknowledged that in the current climate it was unlikely that the entire housing allocation would be taken up, although he said that there was considerable interest in the site from developers.

Although Mr Bowen is more than capable of standing his ground, the chief executive Mark James decided to wade in, and gave a lengthy defence of the scheme. Flood risk was in his view not an issue, and he wanted to see development start with the construction of a new link road. Somehow, all of this was necessary to protect the area. By agreeing to the plan councillors would be ensuring, he said, that the council would remain in control of the development, and he raised the spectre of the imposition of high density building imposed by the Welsh Government if the plan was not approved.

He then went on to warn any doubters about the deposit Local Development Plan that failure to stick to the population projections handed down by the Welsh Government would take us down the same path as Wrexham. Any council intending to go against the population projections would have to be very well prepared with evidence, he warned.

Considering how much the council spends on external consultants and specialists, you would think that we could expect a well-prepared and robust case against Cardiff's population projections, but it seems that Carmarthenshire is not going to bother, even though the various deposit LDPs and the Welsh Government's projections do not take account of the census carried out last year (isn't that what censuses are supposed to be for?).

In the end, of course, Mr James got his way, and the plan was approved, even though the people of Carmarthen clearly don't want it. But it is for their own good.

Two of the best contributions came from the People First group, with Cllr Arthur Davies highlighting the concerns of local people, and Cllr Siân Caiach pointing out that what we are likely to get is developers putting in applications that inflate the values of their landbanks without actually building anything.
Eifion Bowen acknowledged that this was a legitimate concern, but it seemed that we would have to wait for the LDP until anything could be done to stop this abuse of the planning system.

To groans from the Independent benches, Cllr Davies also pointed out that the whole history of the Carmarthen West development was an example of how the county council had become officer-led, with councillors simply on hand to rubber stamp and legitimise decisions made by a small group of unelected senior officers.

Anyone doubting that merely has to observe the interaction between the chair and the chief executive during public meetings, where the chair has successfully been trained to respond to a variety of hand signals that include "wind it up" and "stop this".

Cllr Davies had asked for a recorded vote on the planning brief, but this was ignored. In the ensuing vote, the Independent and Labour groups appeared to vote in favour, while Plaid seemed to go three different ways (for, against, abstain). People First, all two of them, voted against.

And so the meeting came to an end, and Carmarthenshire County Council's current administration breathed its dying gasp.

The final meeting encapsulated neatly everything that is wrong with this institution. Any discussion of the chief executive's libel indemnity was quashed, and there has not been a single opportunity for councillors to consider whether this is an appropriate use of public money, thanks to skilful management of procedures. And approval was given to a gigantic development scheme which the people who are represented by the council don't want.

The chair congratulated himself on surviving his first year in the hot seat "unscathed". Let's hope the voters give him a rougher ride as they remember his wriggling, ducking and diving over the future of Ysgol Pantycelyn.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is a great pity Sian Ciaich isnt in Plaid. Sadly she left due to the useless nonentities who have jed the party recently.
I still hope Plaid will be returned as a majority and the Tories in the shape of Labour and so called independents booted out.The first thing the new administration must do is sack all the current leading officers.