Carmarthenshire County Council has been advertising for a new head of planning as Eifion Bowen, the current incumbent, prepares to step down and head off into retirement. Although the job is being advertised, the smart money is on the appointment going to an internal applicant, Julian Edwards.
Eifion Bowen is a personable and approachable man, and he must be feverishly counting down the days left in the hot seat. Of all the top jobs in County Hall, the role of head of planning is probably the toughest. The planning system itself is a Kafka-esque nightmare, and is subject to frequent legislative and policy changes, while the seas around those shifting sands are filled with large numbers of predatory sharks assisted by consultants and lawyers who are far better resourced than local authority planning departments. Then there are the lesser fry who include a fair number of cranks and obsessives.
If that was not difficult enough, the head of planning has also had to accommodate interference from above, as the "dream team" seeks to impose its own particular vision and pet projects on the county, often in collaboration with greedy big money interests and the funny handshake lobby.
No wonder that Eifion Bowen has had such a rough ride in the job, and no wonder that there have been so many questionable and strange cases.
Red sky at night
One long-running saga was back in the news again last week when the local press reported that a proposed Aldi store in Newcastle Emlyn was subject to a legal challenge by an unnamed third party.
The development was approved some years ago, and the new store was meant to have opened its doors this year, but the scheme has been dogged by opposition from a rival developer just up the road who would dearly like to build a much larger supermarket on his own land, for which there is also extant planning permission.
Incredibly, planning officers concluded that this small market town could support three supermarkets, the third being an existing CK's "superstore". Neither of the two additional stores has so far materialised, and as the supermarket chains themselves retrench, the prospect of a large new store on the Cawdor site looks ever more unlikely.
The Aldi development is now heading off for judicial review, despite the council's planning department having shown itself to be very accommodating towards the aggrieved developer on numerous other occasions, including the granting of retrospective planning for a large car showroom and enormous neon signs which bathe part of the town in a red glow at night. More recently it supported a bid by the developer to extricate himself from a Section 106 agreement to improve pedestrian access to the site - something which was presented as a key requirement of the original planning application.
Planning is a funny old business.
Meanwhile in Maesybont, Natural Resources Wales has begun looking into the destruction of part of the Cernydd Carmel SSSI and SAC conservation area. Despite its clear designation under both UK and European law, the council has so far acknowledged only that it has "potential" conservation value.
Mrs Trisha Breckman has provided NRW with extensive video and photographic evidence of the work carried out by her wholesale scrap and waste dealer neighbour, only to be asked why she had not raised her concerns with the agency when the work first started.
Somewhat taken aback by this, Mrs Breckman replied that she had informed Carmarthenshire County Council at the time, as the local planning authority, on the assumption that it would inform NRW as the statutory body with responsibility for the protection of designated SSSIs and SACs.
When presented with the same photographs and video evidence of the quarrying work, the council told Mrs Breckman that it was seeking legal advice internally to determine whether this material could be used as evidence. A "no" from the legal eagles in County Hall would, of course, enable the council to claim that it has seen no evidence, an excuse which could be very useful in due course.
There have been two major quarrying episodes on the land - the first last autumn and a second round earlier this year. In addition, the site owner has created a road, part of which has a tarmac surface, across the site. This was carried out without planning permission, although a retrospective application has now gone in. Furthermore, the owner has begun depositing scrap on part of the site again - a previous episode ended in a public inquiry - with the council once again considering what to do about it.
It would seem to be the case that the council did not trouble NRW with the bad news about what was taking place at Cernydd Carmel, and instead issued Enforcement Notices requiring the site owner to put back some topsoil and reseed the area with grass.
Interestingly, the council could have issued Stop Notices compelling the owner, Mr Thomas, to cease quarrying of the land forthwith, but instead opted for the softer option of Enforcement Notices which enabled Mr Thomas to go on quarrying for several more weeks on both occasions. The first Enforcement Notice was preceded by an "advisory letter" asking him to stop work, and that was duly ignored.
The planning authority bent so far backwards in its dealings with Mr Thomas that it was practically horizontal. When Mr Thomas resumed quarrying in February of this year and the council issued a second Enforcement Notice, Mrs Breckman asked why it had not resorted to issuing a Stop Notice after its experiences the previous autumn. A planning officer wrote to Mrs Breckman to explain:
Stop Notices were considered but it was not considered appropriate in
either case as the unauthorised activity ceased and Mr Thomas has sought
to comply with the requirements set out in
the Enforcement Notices.
As a Natural Resources Wales officer repeatedly told Mrs Breckman, it was "a pity" nobody had told them about all of this sooner.
Perhaps the council's letter was lost in the post.