Wednesday 27 May 2015

More strange tales from the planning department

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.

Rocky road

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.


Anonymous said...

The case involving the Breckmans and their dreadful neighbour has been widely reported exposing the distress they have suffered. Cneifiwr's post today with information relating to destruction of a protected site and the officers reply to them explaining the enforcement system beggars belief.Blatant disregard for the environment in allowing this to happen and the officer's decision virtually saying that they issued an enforcement notice but it didn't matter because by the time it was due to expire he had finished anyway.There are big questions to be answered here one being how can officers
do this openly helping someone to play the system.Of course a stop notice should have been slammed on immediately they were informed.Someone has to find the answer Why? Why for this man when others are penalised for minor breaches.It virtually stinks.Really hope Plaid investigate this one.If Julian Edwards is wise he should run a mile from CCC planning department with Mark James in charge.

Anonymous said...

I find myself torn between the 'Rough Ride you suggest Mr Eifion Bowen has had, and in the same paragraph, "The questionable and strange cases." I do confess I have only experienced the latter. I must accept the former if you say so but I hope I am to be allowed to continue questioning the latter which bear his signature.

Anonymous said...

Eifion Bowen's signature might be on planning documents but is he acting alone.Now that's a question!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Julian Edwards? One may have to wonder how long it could be for rot to set in. I wonder how long it takes to infect staff who may possibly feel unable to resist having to go along with unusual practices? If he has not bucked the system up to now, are we to trust that he has been immune? I'm not quite ready yet.
I'll reserve my judgement. After all, there might still be a chance that I will get an answer from him to a question which was put to him about six months ago. I know it is a long time, but you never know.
He did not appear to be immune then.

Anonymous said...

RE. Anonymous 18.20
Acting alone? Acting alone would not last for long. Any one person would easily be shopped by disgruntled or disgusted individuals in my opinion. Strength in numbers comes to mind.
One individual is easier to depose than a posse. When we look at how difficult it has proved to be to get any action about so many complaints, that should answer 18.20's question.

Sian Caiach said...

My experience of CCC's planning department's view of the environment is that if its an obstacle, ignore it. Produce some report on how the slow worms can be "moved", the rare butterflies persuaded onto nearby land that they haven't yet realized is suitable for them etc. There is even a rumour of an environmental report being sent back to the author with menaces and instructions to remove the offending paragraphs suggesting the site was of high environmental significance.
There's also the clear evidence accepted by the UK government and EU commission of the Loughor Estuary suffering criminally high levels of untreated sewage effluent release. This clearly cannot be happening as it would mean that all housing development should cease until the Urban Waste Water Habitats directive [the one that says you have to fully treat all sewage] is actually complied with. The Exec Board member for ignoring the problem, councilor Jim jones, is still in post while his director flees from the insanity of CCC. It will be interesting to see if the new Plaid Chair of Planning accepts the EU court case is not a fantasy. We really do need a moratorium on new house building in South East Carmarthenshire until the sewage issue is resolved.

Anonymous said...

'...the funny handshake lobby.'

Who are you referring to? Freemasons? Who in the council are Freemasons then? I'll wager less than you think.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@22.23 The reference was to interests outside the council.

Anonymous said...

Anon@22:23 “Who in the council are Freemasons then?”

As long as CCC continue to drag its feet over publishing the register of members’ interests online, it is very difficult to find out. Anyone wanting to check is confronted with a procedure which couldn’t be much more obstructive if it tried.

Anonymous said...

You can watch Julian Edwards on the archived planning committee webcasts and see how informed he is and how he answers queries.

Anonymous said...

I should have been clearer in my comment about Eifion Bowen acting alone..You only need one person at the top who controls everything leaving officers helpless and we all know who that is

Tessa said...

Yes I agree with anon 28 May 2015 at 09:50. The one at the top is the one who sets the culture, and the longer they are there, the deeper the culture is embedded.
That they remain at the top is due in part to their personal strength and determination with charisma and some madness.
The charisma ensures they have support at least at the start of their reign, and then latterly the madness becomes more apparent once they have the confidence of security that the previous mad thing was permitted. I.e. madder and madder.
Then it is more difficult to get shot of them. This is for several reasons:-
At what point does someone with influence (e.g. a councillor) say "Hang on a minute, that's going a bit far!"? At what point along from the thin end of the wedge does that happen, without looking negligent for not having flagged up matters previous? Without the having to face off the others who will not admit things have gone to far and they have been negligent, or downright stupid, or even complicit in allowing them to go so far?
At what point does an employee raise their concerns? I would love to know of a Whistleblower who has come out of such an act better off (in terms of domestic stress and personal finance and job security), although of course morally they have proved themselves to be persons of character and courage far above the average.
So with the one at the top keeping their job, getting away with outrageous stuff, about which no-one individual can do much if anything, then the culture will be set and become entrenched - the attitude will be one of either "if you can't beat them, join them", or "just keep your head down and collect your salary, pay your mortgage, and look forward to a decent pension".

DDD said...

Cyngor Sir Gar and FIFA - spot the difference

Anonymous said...

Re anonymous 09.40. Re. how Julian Edwards answers queries.
For HOW please read IF. A query regarding a questionable document
which he signed remains unanswered many months later. One can only speculate as to the reason but my guess is because no officer who had actually read the contents properly would have signed it. Well, I mean no officer who was concerned about accuracy.

Anonymous said...

With this officer led Council it makes no difference which political part is in charge as it is officer led, however, the difference which will be noticed is the amount of funding coming in from Westminster/ Cardiff. You need to be able 'to bend a ear' at these to get money flowing in.

Anonymous said...

Tessa you have hit the nail on the head with your reasoning as to how the toxic culture led from the top continues unabated. Once a blind eye is turned away from iffy decisions it's difficult later for anyone to speak up who could have spoken up before as their own lack of previous action would be pounced on. That is how institutional abuse is so successfully kept concealed from the wider public. Employees who show concern of what is taking place are not considered a team player. Should they actually whistleblow they will find the line management are fully aware but choose to turn a blind eye and take no action and certainly will not follow the whistleblowing policy. This means the whistleblower will either leave, ignore continuing abuses and put up with being treated as having been disloyal to the team or actually join the team by using their methods. None of these actions will change a toxic culture or protect the safety of service users or the public interest. All the way up the managerial line this is what takes place and if the CEO is happy for cover up and encourages it then nothing will change. When complainants and whistleblowers refuse to stay silent and continue to call for action then they are vilified by management who are very persuasive in making sure that rarely do other bodies take any interest in what is taking place. ALL these actions against the public interest should be investigated as misconduct in public office; for that to happen the (in this case) Dyfed Powys Police would need to be impartial and open minded and I have not found them so in regard to complaints against officers of the CCC. I expect the director of environment left because she knew she would have to play along with the CCC's shenanigans; pity if that was the case as she might have been able to speak up before becoming tarred with the same brush as others. Though I still think officers/members who have been coerced should gird their loins and redeem themselves by speaking out; they know where the skeletons are buried. They are, after all, public servants whose first priority is to protect the public interest not the self interest of wrongdoing superiors.

Jennifer Brown (whistleblower)

Anonymous said...

Goodbye and good ridance Eifion Bowen ! Yes I've had dealings with Carms planning dept .

Anonymous said...

Eifion Bowens' legacy to carmarthenshire -

Visit Penybanc village outside Llandeilo - to see what he has allowed to be done to this village,I entreat you dear reader please do

Gaze from the ramparts of Dinefwr castle across the historical landscape of the Tywi valley to the eyesore called ysgol Bro Dinefwr blighting the landscape, whilst it could have been rebuilt on the the tregib site - a lovely wooded area - obscuring the inevitable shoddy building from the town.

Count the numerous executive houseing estates built in carms for all those Carmarthenshrie Executives earning 50-100k a year in their executive jobs in the county;s executive businesses...

Gawp at the wonderful exclusive, housing estate built in Mynyddy garreg on the Optical site - blending in with the vencular architecure of the area and enhancing this lovely area.

Yes what a legacy I would deport all Welsh planners and populate the jobs with English ones - seriously at least they look after their villgaes and towns in England when it comes to the built environment. LAs have ruined ours and our venacular buidings and towns