Saturday, 3 August 2013

Carmarthenshire Planning Tales

Back again to Carmarthenshire Council's planning department. Yesterday's BBC Wales news included a feature on the thorny issue of listed buildings and prosecutions, with special reference to Carmarthenshire County Council. The piece featured a restored Manor house at Maesycrugiau. Quite clearly the owners, a couple from Belgium, have sympathetically brought the place back to it's former and original glory and are currently running a successful B & B. They have spent £500,000 and are part of the county's tourist industry our council professes to hold so dear.

Maesycrugiau Manor (source; BBC)

During restoration a major leak suddenly developed and emergency contingency work was carried out to prevent further damage. This resulted in the council taking enforcement action against the couple for unauthorised works. The couple appealed and won but despite that, the council is now considering prosecution. Their planning consultant described the council's stance as 'completely unreasonable', they refused to sit down and discuss the matter despite being able to see the water pouring in.

Carmarthenshire is one of five councils (it used to be three) who have delegated power from Cadw (protects listed buildings, castles etc  in Wales) to deal with listed building matters. With the power of delegation also comes the responsibility to use appropriate discretion and to act in the public interest.

The BBC reporter asked the Council's Head of Planning whether he really thought that prosecution was in the public interest. He declined to answer this particular question as the case was 'live'.

The BBC also made Freedom of Information requests to enquire how much all Welsh local authorities spent on legal action with regards to listed buildings. Although the BBC didn't provide all the responses (I wish media organisations would link to full foi responses, but that's another gripe) most spent nothing, or very little. Out on top though was Carmarthenshire Council having spent over £55,000.

Most of this, as regular readers may remember, related to the pursuit of the owner of Felin Wen Mill in Llandybie. He had also carried out emergency works during sympathetic restoration and was prosecuted. The magistrates court cleared him but the council were having none of it and appealed. They won on one point and the owner was eventually fined £3000 and acquired a criminal record.

Felin Wen (Source; BBC)

Unlike the owner of Felin Wen, who had kept the exterior of the tiny mill building intact (and carefully removed the tree growing through the middle) another listed mill, a couple of miles away was demolished. For some unknown reason the council didn't prosecute and retrospectively approved the demolition. That was almost that, until someone pointed out to CADW that the powers delegated to Carmarthenshire Council did not include power to approve demolition. Fortunately for the council this memory lapse made no difference in the end.

We all want historic buildings protected of course but there has to be an element of consistency and even some common sense thrown in and the council should be seen to lead by example of course. The lengthy, slow dereliction of Theatre Elli, Llanelli, owned by the council, was another case in point.

Theatre Elli, before the scaffolding went up.
Built in 1938 in Art Deco style, it was Grade 2 listed. The council allowed the cinema to fall into a state of neglect as it gave several acres of prime development land to a Nottingham based company to develop the East Gate vision, complete with a new Odeon across town. And of course the Ffwrnes Theatre (almost called the Stepney Centre readers may recall..) One of the stipulations to prospective purchasers of Theatre Elli is that it does not become another cinema. Clearly the Odeon and the East Gate management don't want the competition.

To develop the East Gate project the council also bulldozed a row of Georgian workers cottages, part of the old coaching route between Swansea and Carmarthen and described as one of the earliest examples of Georgian commercial properties in the town. The Council press release said that they 'Offered little resistance to bulldozers clearing the way for the dawning of the £25 million East Gate said they were poorly constructed and collapsed in little more than 30 minutes with little encouragement '. The Georgians clearly hadn't forseen the power of modern machinery and Carmarthenshire Council.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM also spoke on yesterday's programme. He has probably received more mail from bewildered residents, dumbfounded by the planning process in Carmarthenshire than any other AM. He has made regular calls for an inquiry into the planning department over several years. So far, even after the disturbing revelations last year with the Breckman case, (see here and here) these calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Thomas pointed out, carefully, that with the delegated decision making powers, there is a 'danger that you have a very local perspective' . For improved 'consistency and transparency', and for everyone to know where they stood, the powers should be back in the hands of CADW. I think this stripping of delegated powers is something he feels would definitely benefit the people of Carmarthenshire.

Still on the subject of planning you may recall Cllr Caiach's letter to the Minister, Carl Sargeant, questioning whether the works should have started at the Stradey homes development given that there was a 'Stopper' notice. Residents are concerned that by building the homes on a man made elevated platform of earth, the laws of physics dictate that any flood water likely as not end up in their homes.

The Minister replied that he would be asking the council for their opinion as to whether there has been a lawful commencement of the development, "...Until then the call-in requests remain to be determined and the Article 18 Direction preventing the Council from granting planning permission on application S/23311 remains in force"

This is, as you may know, is a long and complicated saga but basically, and as I understand it, the outline planning for 355 homes was running out so an extension was applied for by Taylor Wimpey. Given that the flood area had now increased, the stop notice was put in place for the WG to consider a 'call-in.

As the works have commenced and some areas of concern addressed, the council now considers that although the stop notice still applies, it is irrelevant. So much for stop notices, no problem for Carms council.

Of course the squeeze is on to try and retrieve the £5.6m S106 money already blown on the new Parc Y scarlets stadium a few miles away.  S106 money is supposed to be spent in the developed area, in this case the Stradey area. At the time, this arrangement was considered 'unusual'.

Incidentally, with regards to S106 agreements, those who live in or close to new, larger developments and are wondering when the promised community benefits etc are going to materialize, the council currently holds £1.5m in unspent 106 money. Thats a lot of swings.

Apparently there will be representatives of the Scarlets and the Stadium at the next full council meeting on the 11th September when a report on the council's continuing financial support to the club will be discussed. If that is the case then it should be very interesting.
It would also be interesting if representatives of the Towy Community Church turned up, they, along with the council executive, could answer a few burning questions which I'm sure many councillors must surely be wanting to ask.

(The video clip from yesterday's BBC Wales news item on listed buildings and Carmarthenshire Council can be seen here)

Update 5th August;
I now understand that Taylor Wimpey, developers of the Stradey site are apparently going to be paying back all the S106 money by March next year, and have already paid half, £2.8m. Which may explain the council's reluctance to listen to the fears of Stradey residents and agree with the 'stop' notice.
Also, the Scarlets will be at the October meeting, not September's to discuss a report, the contents of which are not known.


Anonymous said...

Excellent posting.

Should CCC really have delegated powers from Cadw when then can't look after their own buildings? Theatre Elli was neglected for years and has now been covered in scaffolding for over a year when tiles started to fall off. The litter has piled up inside of the fencing in that year - a convenient fire hazard for CCC?

Anonymous said...

Another anomaly from within CCCs planning system which is kept under wraps is that people who buy farms for their commercial equine businesses, so long as they cut hay for their horses and own a tractor, which is obviously needed to maintain their land, need not apply for 'material change of use'. They are entitled to qualify under agricultural GPDO to build sheds under agricultural status and extend their yard areas - no planning permission reqd. If I am wrong let me stand to be corrected by the council's Head of Planning. This knowledge would assist many equine centres across the whole of the UK as I'm sure several of them would love to have more buildings on their farms in order to expand their businesses.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Didn't know that. I think this would be very interesting to the Horse and Hounds magazine!!!