Tuesday 18 December 2012

News from the Planning Portal - Part One

"A good time to bury bad news" is a phrase we have become familiar with from the spin doctors, and in Carmarthenshire, developers and the council itself have long known that Christmas is a good time to set controversial planning applications in motion.


Plans for a new super-school at Ffairfach just outside Llandeilo have been on the cards for a long time, so the decision by the council to introduce a planning application in the week before Christmas when it is least likely to be noticed and attract objections suggests that the council's spin doctors have been at work again.

The siting of the new school has been controversial from the start as it is both in the middle of a C2 flood plain and a Special Landscape Area. The closure of Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery means that many children will have to spend hours travelling each day, and the introduction of travel charges for children aged 16 and over will be a crippling burden for many families.

Building in areas prone to flooding is something which Ffairfach has in common with Stradey Park in Llanelli.

Last week the house builder Taylor Wimpey moved to establish a symbolic presence in the form of a workman's hut and a JCB on the site, conscious no doubt that its existing planning permission is about to run out.

The Stradey Park story already has enough twists and turns, skulduggery, threats and allegations to fill a fat book, but let's concentrate on the planning process itself.

What happens next will be an interesting test of whether Environment Minister John Griffiths was spouting more than hot air when he said the other week that the Welsh Government would act to prevent more new houses being built in areas prone to flooding.

The problem, right from the beginning, was that Carmarthenshire County Council, as the local planning authority, was inextricably caught up in a massive conflict of interest of its own making. It was never for a moment in a position to carry out its quasi-judicial responsibilities as an impartial and even-handed arbiter because of the depth of its financial and political investment in the Scarlets project. If and when the Welsh Government ever gets round to tackling the mess which is the planning system in Wales, one of the first things it should do is ensure that the planning process is removed from local authority control from the start whenever a council has a significant commercial or political interest in the outcome of a planning application.

The first time the Stradey housing development was called in by Cardiff was back in 2006. Scarlets showed at a public inquiry that the Tidal C2 flood plain was not as extreme as the maps suggested, and outline planning was granted.

It subsequently turned out that the maps used by the Environment Agency were incorrect, and the Welsh Government called the application in for a second time in 2010 on the basis that the revised maps showed what local people had known all along: Stradey is in a Fluvial C2 flood plain.

Behind the scenes there was a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing after the call-in, with the developer threatening legal action on the basis that once the principle of development has been established such decisions, once made, cannot be reconsidered even though the information on which the planning decision had been made was now clearly wrong. The Government backed down, and the application was handed back to Carmarthenshire. Carmarthenshire, not often known for the speed of its decisions, managed to rubber stamp the reserved matters stage of the development within a day of Cardiff relinquishing its hold.

Llanelli residents believe that the legal advice provided to the Welsh Government was wrong because while tidal flooding risk was not an issue, the risk of fluvial (river) flooding had not previously been correctly identified.

We now roll forward to 2012 where the existing planning permission is about to expire (in January 2013). Taylor Wimpey applied for an extension of permission and greater freedom in deciding the eventual mix of housing types to be built. Needless to say, the council's planning committee was eager to oblige, but had to settle for saying that it was "minded to approve" the extension following an intervention from Cardiff, where the matter currently rests.

Unfortunately for Taylor Wimpey and County Hall, the latest call-in request coincided with dramatic flooding of communities in various parts of Wales, including the Glasdir housing development in Rhuthun. Glasdir was developed by Taylor Wimpey.

In its defence, Taylor Wimpey said that it had been assured by the relevant government agencies that adequate flood defences were in place before development began. The site was purchased by Taylor Wimpey from the now-defunct Welsh Development Agency, and the company has called for an investigation of what happened.

Objectors to the Stradey Park development believe that the flood defences and control measures being proposed for the site in Llanelli actually fall quite a long way short of what was in place in Rhuthun. Part of the proposals will involve raising the land to 7 metres above ordnance datum (above sea level to you and me), and pumps would be installed. Unless plans have changed, the pumps would appear to be located in areas prone to flooding. As other communities have seen only too clearly, they stop working when needed most. It was also proposed that each property on the Stradey site will have attenuation tanks in their gardens to hold surface water before releasing it gradually into the Cille River. These tanks and their maintenance will be the responsibility of the home owners.

The net result would be an enormous plateau rising above the surrounding area where people feel, not surprisingly, that even if the new Taylor Wimpey houses are less prone to flooding, existing properties in places such as Sandy Road will be much more likely to flood.

How the minister, John Griffiths, responds to the gauntlet which has been thrown down in Llandeilo and Llanelli will be watched with interest in other parts of Wales.

1 comment:

caebrwyn said...

Another Carmarthenshire council application currently with Cardiff is for 35 homes and an 'Ecopark' at the Machynys development in Llanelli. Again this is partly on a flood plain and the proposal is to import 25,000 Cu metres of soil to raise the level by 7m. Surely the increased threat of flooding to surrounding properties is a very real one, and simply a matter of applying the laws of physics.