CARMARTHENSHIRE Council has agreed to pay £24,000 legal costs after altering a planning decision notice for a scheme put forward by a food writer and cook.
The authority was facing a two-day judicial review hearing, but agreed to a court order which quashed the amended decision notice.
The judicial review had been brought by a third party, who objected to the amended decision notice relating to a barn conversion by food writer Lisa Fearn.
The objector’s solicitors argued that the council did not have the power to amend the decision, which the authority has now conceded, and also claimed the operation of Mrs Fearn’s barn – when converted – was a breach of planning control.
The council said in a statement that it had settled the judicial review case because it acknowledged “there were some defects in process”.
It added: “The consent order usefully clarified the valid planning permission for the development and that has identified various non-conformities which will now need to be regularised.”
It also said that applicant Lisa Fearn’s husband, Jonathan Fearn, who is head of property at the council, had made the required declarations of interest and had not interfered with the planning process in any way.
The saga began in 2016 when Mrs Fearn applied to the council for planning permission to refurbish two barns at the family home near Nantgaredig, in the Towy Valley.
One barn was to become a cookery school and life skills centre, the other visitor accommodation.
The planning application included a drawing of the first barn, which set out a central “coffee area”. The description of the proposal on the application form said life skills centre and cookery school.
The scheme was determined by the council’s planning committee because of Mrs Fearn’s relationship to a council employee.
There were no objections to the proposals for the barns, and the committee approved the refurbishment scheme.
One planning condition said the first barn should be built in accordance with the drawings provided, while another said the barn “shall be used for a cookery school and no other purpose”.
However, it emerged later that this condition was amended to include a cafe, under a separate planning use. The cafe, it said, should only be “ancillary” to the cookery school and life skills centre and not an independent venture.
Planning documents indicate this amended decision notice was signed by development planning manager Julian Edwards, with the same date as the original decision.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporter Service, Mrs Fearn claimed she spoke to a planning officer “within a month” of the original planning decision being issued because she was concerned about the planning use she had been granted.
She claimed the officer said the matter would be resolved.
Mrs Fearn said she had always intended to operate a coffee area for cookery school customers as part of the business, that she wasn’t a planning expert, and that she would have resubmitted a planning application had she been asked to do so.
Mrs Fearn also successfully applied for £128,000 of European funding via the Welsh Government to refurbish the barns, including the provision of an internet coffee shop.
And she was also awarded £10,000 in business match-funding from the county council, which she said went towards new equipment for the cookery school.
Mrs Fearn said she started the application process for the Welsh Government grant at around the same time as applying for planning permission, and that the mention of a coffee shop in support of the grant application showed this was how she envisaged her cookery school business to operate and that she wasn’t trying to hide anything.
Concerns were raised by an objector in 2018 about the work being carried out at the barns, and the amended planning decision notice was identified.
Mrs Fearn also submitted another planning application to increase the ridge height of the life skills and cookery barn and install UPVC conservation windows, but the section of the application form which asked if the applicant was related to a council employee said “no”.
Mrs Fearn said this was an oversight on behalf of her architect, who had filled out the for, and that she had only read it after it was submitted to the council.
This application was dealt with as a “non-material amendment” to the original application under delegated authority by the council’s planning department. The increased ridge height was approved, but not the UPVC windows.
Concerns about the work carried out under the non-material amendment scheme were made by the objector, whose solicitor has asked not be named.
The objector’s legal representatives asked the council to take enforcement action and, in June last year, sent out a pre-action letter, which gives parties the chance to try to settle a dispute without going to court.
And it was also claimed that the coffee shop area was being run as a standalone venture when it opened last August, which Mrs Fearn denies.
Then, in October, the authority issued Mrs Fearn a temporary stop notice, saying it considered a breach of planning control had taken place. The temporary notice prohibited the “non-ancillary” use of the coffee shop.
Since then Mrs Fearn has set up a pop-up coffee shop in Carmarthen. She said this was to safeguard jobs and continue to meet the terms of the £128,000 grant.
She has also reapplied to the council for planning permission for a life skills centre and cookery school with visitor accommodation.
The new application, submitted in November last year, has not been determined as yet.
The court consent order was signed by all parties in December.
In response to several questions from the Local Democracy Reporter Service, the council said: “We have recently settled a judicial review challenging the way in which the authority handled a planning application by a spouse of one of our senior employees, by means of a consent order.
“We did so because we acknowledged that there were some defects in process.
“The consent order usefully clarified the valid planning permission for the development and that has identified various non-conformities which will now need to be regularised.
“In that respect we can confirm that we have already received a further planning application, which will in due course be referred to the planning committee for determination along with any objections.”
The statement said employees, or spouses or family of employees, were just as entitled to apply for planning permission or funding support as anyone else.
It added: “We have robust processes in place for declarations of interest to be made to ensure that employees do not handle their own applications in any way, shape or form.
“In this particular case the senior employee was not employed in the planning division, had made declarations of interest in relation to the spouse’s planning application and related matters from the outset, and did not interfere with the determination process in any way.”
Mrs Fearn said she felt she had done everything in good faith.
“I am absolutely devastated it has come to this,” she said.
The mother-of-five also claimed she was being harassed – and that the planning saga had cost her several thousand pounds.
“I go from upset to angry,” she said.
Asked if she felt a victim of what had happened, she replied: “Absolutely, totally.”
Referring to the coffee area, the 50-year-old said: “The coffee area was only ever used alongside the cookery school activities.
“We had several introduction days, drop-in sessions and cookery school tours for people to see and book into workshops.
“The coffee area is only there as part of the wider cookery school and life skills centre, it is not standalone.”
Mrs Fearn said her husband was not a director of her company, Lisa Fearn Ltd, played no part in her cookery school business, and had made all the appropriate declarations to the council.
Asked about the £128,000 grant, a Welsh Government spokesman said: “The offer of the grant was based on the original planning permission.
“In light of the amended planning decision having been declared unlawful, we will review the original grant approval.”