Sunday, September 17, 2006

Planning in Merton

In the politically dead of month of August (and apart from this meeting it was pretty much the case), the Planning committee needed two meetings to complete its business (a rare occurrence). The first one ending at 11-45 at night with an adjournment and then re-convened two weeks later ending at 11-15, they've certainly been very time consuming of late and I am glad not to be a member of planning anymore.

Anyway what struck me was the number of refusals at the meeting, normally a few applications are refused at each meeting (averages about 2-3 from experience) but at the most recent meeting eight applications were refused and they all involved converting family houses into flats. On every application the officer recommendations had been to accept and they were overturned using the below reason to justify refusal. The text is below, I have also enclosed a link to the minutes of the meeting along with the UDP.

“The proposed flats by reason of their size, design and layout, would provide a cramped and unsatisfactory standard of residential accommodation which would fail to meet minimum size requirements specified in paragraph 5.1.3 of the 2001 Supplementary Planning Guidance : "Residential Extensions, Alterations & Conversions (November 2001)" and would lead to a shortage of small family dwellings locally whilst at the same time giving rise to increased demand for on street parking space that would adversely affect pedestrian and highway safety to the detriment of neighbouring residential amenity contrary to policies HP5 & PK3 of the Adopted Unitary Development Plan (October 2003)” (A very large document of 343 pages)

At the meeting, what was even more interesting was that all the votes were 5-5 with the Chair William Brierly using his casting vote on all the refusals. Another interesting point is that Conservative Councillor Angela Caldara voted the opposite way to all her colleagues(she has a reputation of being quite independent minded), it was only through Merton Park Resident councillor Peter Southgate voting with the Conservatives that resulted in a deadlocked vote. It will be interesting to see whether Angela Caldara continues to be on Planning and if the Conservative group removes her in the near future.

Subsequently on the agenda for the Council meeting this Wednesday is the following motion which has been signed by the Chair William Brierly, Cllr Marc Hanson and Cllr Peter Southgate this is the first time since been elected to the Council in 2002 that I've know a motion relating to planning policy to be on the agenda.

"This Council acknowledges the role played by conversion of houses into flats in providing additional homes. However, this Council wishes to avoid the loss of smaller units of family housing to achieve this objective. Furthermore, in acknowledging that the SPG on Residential Extensions, Alterations and Conversions (November 2001) is a valid document; it is proposed that this Council recognises the threshold set out in the SPG of 120 sq.m. below which conversions of houses to flats will not normally take place in all planning decisions with immediate effect."

This issue is a serious issue that does need careful consideration as it something faced by Council's in many urban areas. The loss of some family homes in Merton is a matter of some concern and does need further debate, but other issues do need to be considered and taking into account legal advice is essential. Having sat on a Planning Committee, applications have appeared during my time that I would like to have refused but I’ve have had insufficient reason to justify refusal. If the reasons we use to turn down applications are weak then we could potentially open ourselves up to a large legal bill if they are appealed and the Council loses.

However, what does concern me much more is the attitude of one Conservative Councillor Marc Hanson (at the July meeting of Planning) to planning policy who believes that a political manifesto(the Putting your first document) should be material consideration in refusing applications(that is despite failing to win a majority of seats on Merton Council). If this is the case, it would be very concerning, planning has always been a quasi-judicial committee(the whip does not apply), and indeed, I did on a few occasions vote mainly with Conservative members to turn down applications that I believed should be refused by the Council. At times, I’ve also been frustrated by some decisions made by my Labour colleagues on planning but recognise that each application needs to be considered on the relevant merits of the case using Planning Policy; if politics starts to be brought into planning the whole system is open to disrepute.

I enclose below the relevant minute of the July meeting is as follows in which Marc Hanson made comments about determining planning applications.

(NB (3) Manifesto Commitments and Planning Applications: During the discussions on above Applications 06/P0883 & 06/P0888, Councillor Marc Hanson put forward the view that if a political party made a commitment in its manifesto, and that party was subsequently elected, then that manifesto commitment became a material consideration when considering planning applications. The Legal Services representative advised that this was not the case and that she had already discussed the issue with the Head of Civic and Legal Services. Councillor Marc Hanson requested that Legal Services send him their advice in writing; and indicated that a leading planning barrister had given a contrary view. July 2006 Merton Council planning committee

Planning in Merton recently seems to have become that much more interesting. I would welcome any comments about planning issues in other areas especially the issue of converting houses to flats as clearly this is an issue in Merton at present.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might also want to see the comments that Cllr David Dean made to the Wimbledon News - he commented that the Apostles were not a suitable area for house conversions. I think this leaves it open for appeals, as he's clearly made his mind up on any application in the Apostles area of Dundonald ward before he's heard the evidence - and he's made it clear to the public that this is the case.

1:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Liberal Democrats are running a campaign to have rules written into the LDF to give the planning applications committee the flexibility to consider issues such as the availability in parking, the amount of small family housing and the size of conversions. This would allow residents' concerns to be taken into account without planning meetings having to be about whether they can make a decision contrary to that of officers - and leaving Merton vulnerable to expensive appeals if they do.

Unlike the Tories new proposals, their suggestions wouldn't result in the automatic rejection of any application on the basis of an arbitrary figure - but would allow debate and consideration of the proposal and whether it is needed.

1:45 pm  

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