19 August 2011

A counsel of dunces

The approval by SSDC's Area North Planning Committee, of the Edgar application for their Etsome Terrace site gave me quite a bit to think about, particularly the contributions made by  the committee members. But before I go into that, it is useful to consider what was actually recommended for approval by SSDC's Planning Officers.

The application was a renewal of the original application made in 2008 and, at that time, supported by Somerton Town Council, who were selling the land in question to Edgar Homes. Three years has elapsed since that application and, as the applicant has not started the work, they were required to apply for a renewal of the consent.

In the intervening three years, SSDC policy has changed and the Planning Officers were therefore treating the application as a new application rather than a renewal. As such, the Planning Officers were seeking a S106 'planning gain' contribution of around £77,000 from the developer. This requirement had been discussed with the developer prior to the Planning Committee and the developer had refused to negotiate on any basis which resulted in the application being recommended for refusal.

At the Area North committee, the developer, in the person of Mark Edgar, made a short presentation which (and I summarise) said that the imposition of a £77,000 S106 obligation would make the development uneconomic. (Officers stated that, when invited to, the applicant had declined to open their books and prove that view).

Mr A H Canvin followed Mr Edgar in addressing the committee in support of the application. Mr Canvin, it will be remembered, was instrumental in organising the sale of the Etsome land. The point of Mr Canvin's contribution was hard to discern but he did state that, in introducing a 'school drop-off point' within the development, Somerton Town Council had given up two additional building plots. This is an interesting point given that the land sold off to Edgar homes constituted more than the 50% that Somerton Town Council were bound to by their agreement with Somerset County Council. If Mr Canvin's statement were true it would mean that Somerton Town Council considered selling 68% of the land - a rather larger breach of the agreement with County than exists at present.

Debating the application was then turned over to the committee members and our Ward Councillor, Pauline Clarke, led the way with a very curious and long winded (her words) summary of the Somerton situation. In essence, Cllr Clarke listed the excellent facilities enjoyed by Somerton (play, sports, amenity etc etc) and said, in effect, that as Somerton had such excellent facilities, this developer should not have to contribute. Cllr Clarke made no mention of the fact that the ratepayers and voters had paid for these facilities from which this developer and their development would benefit but not contribute towards. Once again an example of Cllr Clarke as the 'developer's friend'.

Cllr Sylvia Steele's contribution was, in comparison to Cllr Clarke's, short and to the point. Cllr Steele's view was that the developer should contribute as the Officer's recommendation proposed.

Cllr David Norris, the other Somerton Ward Member, made a rather vague comment about believing that the developer should contribute but maybe not to the suggested level.

Cllr Mounter then explained that he couldn't understand that the application had been passed before and this was just a renewal so he didn't understand why they were discussing it. In response, an Officer (possibly Mr David Norris said, "Yes, this is a renewal however we have to decide whether current policies  and the answer to that is no, we say that a development of this nature should contribute towards infrastructure costs in line with current policy. Unfortunately the developer has declined to make those obligations and has not been willing to enter into 'open book' viability discussions and that is why we are in the unfortunate position of recommending refusal." Cllr Mounter seemed either unable to understand the officer's explanation or unwilling to accept it as he repeated his inability to understand why the application was being discussed.

Cllr Roundell-Greene then asked quite a searching question about the inclusion of the school drop-off point within the development and pointed out that, had this been replaced with two more housing plots (see Mr Canvin's earlier statement) then the development would have met the criteria for an 'affordable element'.

Cllr Yeomans then wound up the 'debate' by observing that the developer's mistake had been not to at least put the foundations in the ground three years ago, thereby securing the consent on the terms then agreed.

Cllr Mounter then proposed that the application be approved on the terms set out in 2008, a proposal which was immediately seconded (possibly by Cllr Pledger).

The Chair (Cllr Palmer) noted the proposal and its seconding and moved to a vote which, I believe, was carried by 10 votes for and 1 against. Cllr Steele is to be congratulated for displaying some sign of intelligence.

I should point out that I have contacted Cllrs Clarke, Mounter, Roundell-Green and Norris for their comments as well as Mr Mark Edgar. Cllr Clarke and Mr Edgar have failed to respond.

Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly