One has to feel for the officers of the planning department at Carmarthenshire County Council. They actually work their socks off and present incredibly detailed reports to the planning committee made up in the main these days by farmers or ex farmers.
During a planning committee meeting on Thursday (Oct 14) in which they were discussing a One Planet Development (OPD) at Penybanc the officers gave an outline of a very forward thinking application by a small family who wish to establish a low impact home with the ability to grow their own food, and food for sale, harvest their own water from rain water and save the planet in the process. The plans are in line with Welsh Government policy and aspirations and also the council’s own carbon zero aspirations. What’s not to like? It appears quite a lot judging by the comments from the councillors.
Readers will remember that a recent report stated that there were some failings within the planning department and with councillors and that staff within planning were stressed and overworked. That may be an understatement to the observer who took time to watch the webcast of the meeting. As the legal representative Steve Murphy put it, ‘one cannot surmise but look at the evidence on offer’ but in surmising there appeared to be an air of incredulity amongst the officers.
The committee apart from one or two were having none of it. There were accusations that the independent report was not independent, and God forbid that there were no controls in place to stop the family breeding. Cllr Dorian Phillips asked; “What stops these people increasing the family?”
Other observations included the fact that three acres was not big enough to support three people. Those who lived through the war years may beg to differ having existed on rations and the good old allotment. Dig For Victory is not something wanted round ere it seems.
Despite the officers stating that there was no real hope of defending the refusal of the application which had been sought at the expense of commissioning an independent report by a panel of experts on One Planet Development. By their own admission officers did not have the skills to do so.
One issue which raised its head time and again was that members could not see why the family had to live on the land instead of a cottage in Llandeilo whereby they could travel to and fro each day. The councillors may not have grasped that unless the applicants travelled by bicycle they were adding to their carbon footprint and that was the reason d’etre for them actually going ahead with this far from easy move to work the land.
Some commented on the fact that the development was very primitive. The family planned to use their own poo as compost, to grow vegetables, to barter for supplies when needed and to harvest the power of the sun for their home made from recycled materials with a green living roof. Cllr Thomas gave a nod to TV’s The Good Life and said that living off the land was of great interest to him.
Falling down on challenging the One Planet Development policy councillors attacked the company who carried out the consultation. Cllr Ken Howells stated that it was like ‘giving the key for the hen shed to the fox’ to which an animated thumb was raised by the sandwich eating Cllr Tyssul Evans. The analogy ironically suggests some form of corruption within the planning department.
Cllr Thomas said that he wanted to question how the county had used independent consultants Terra Firma. He said: “One of the two people who wrote the report, one is a patron of One Planet Council.”
Cllr Thomas said that it (the report) was skewed one way and that the council were being misled. He said that the council should not believe what the company said as they were not independent. Cllr Thomas also questioned whether the project would be successful saying; “They build a palace that is not environmentally friendly. They talk about selling on the Internet and that is not environmentally friendly either.”
There was a lot of head shaking from councillors at least those who were not busy eating sandwiches live during the meeting.
Councillors were told that the report looked at the viability not the principle of One Planet. The Chair Alun Lenny said: “I repeat myself, it would have been untoward of the company to say this was feasible if it was genuinely unfeasible.”
The chair cautioned the committee and asked them to think carefully about the application.
Steve Murphy said: “We have to be careful in surmising. We have to look at what we have in front of us.”
Cllr Joseph Davies said: “I have nothing against them living this life but they don’t have to live on the land. The concern is that some of them are continuing to work as they used to work and that should not be the case if they are going in for a One Planet life.”
Planning officer Kevin Phillips said that it comes down to the issue that Welsh Government supports One Planet development. “If needs be we will obtain advice to scrutinise and ensure they adhere to TAN 6,” he said
Cllr Gareth Thomas who had not gone off to milk the cows as promised came back to ask again about why the applicants needed a house on the site instead of living in Llandeilo.
He was asked by the chair to give a reason for refusal. He said the applicants lived within a stone’s throw and again asked if they needed a house on the development.
Joseph Davies spoke next and said that the policy said the applicants needed a basis to live on the site and it was a policy they (the council) should be using to refuse the application.
Councillors were told that if the development doesn’t stack up in five years the buildings can be removed and that with regards to water they have a right to access a spring on neighbouring land.
The Chair warned councillors again that they have to remember OPD is a policy outside of the LDP. He said: “Many of us are not happy with the policy and that is what exists. Unless we have very good reasons we have to accept the recommendations of the officers. We have to have reasons.”
Joseph Davies proposed that the application should be refused and Cllr Gareth Thomas seconded the proposal. Following a show of hands 9 councillors voted to refuse and 5 voted to approve. Planning was refused.
Asked to give their reasons for refusing planning Joseph Davies reiterated that the applicants did not need to live on the site. He also said that the occupants had had help or were not doing it by hand, that they had hired machines. The Chair asked: “Do you have evidence of that? Cllr Davies replied; “Yes.”
Seconder Gareth Thomas was asked for a reason for refusing planning and he said that as as one who had read the One Planet development guidelines said it mentioned the word primitive. He said: “What they are proposing is not basic. It does not uphold the principle of One Planet Development.”
The Chair reminded Cllr Thomas again that he was challenging policy not giving a reason for refusal. He said: “We have to have valid reasons why this is against (planning) policy.”
There were more of the same comments stating that the family are not living off the land and that they are conducting other activities as well as another chestnut repeatedly harvested saying; ‘They don’t have to be in this location to have music sessions’ and that building a low impact home without reason would impact on the environment.
Although the webcast was online one could feel the exasperation and stress coming from the webcams of planning officers and legal.
One voice of reason cut through the councillors’ mantra of ‘none of those hippy types welcome ere’ when Cllr Kevin Madge said that he did not accept the council and the tax payers should lose money by making up conditions. He said: “It is awful; we could end up losing an appeal because members have not put a strong case to turn this down.”
Chair Alun Lenny said: “I regret to say I agree with you councillor Madge.”
Legal’s Steve Murphy said that councillors had to provide reasons for turning down the application in an email. He said it would help if the matter is appealed. Planning officer John Thomas said he was not comfortable going forward with reasons for refusal.
The ChairAlun Lenny said: “We are asking a professional officer at appeal to go against his own advice.” He reminded councillors that they were looking at new protocols which meant councillors who had proposed and seconded refusal had to stand up at appeal.
Steve Murphy said: “The code says you should accept advice of officers. If we go forward in the event that we refuse the application inevitably there will be an appeal. The advice from an independent source will be trotted out against us in an appeal. Whatever our views are you have to look at the evidence and the advice you have had from the officers.”
John Thomas asked the councillors to respond to officers within a week to ensure there was no undue delay which would open the council up to non determination.
Cllr Gareth Thomas said: “I am going on holiday I wont be here.”
The Chair said: “Well there we are, one has to stand up to the decisions that they have made.”
Cllr Thomas was asked again to submit his reasons and said: “No thats impossible I am not going on my holiday to do this. It is the first holiday I have had in three years. Unfortunately if one of the council staff were to go on holiday they wouldn’t be forced to do that the way I am being forced to do it.”
The Chair said that he was not forcing anyone to do it and suggested councillors should get the evidence in as soon as possible.
Cllr Thomas eventually made his excuses to go and sort out a problem in the milking parlour and left the meeting.
Leader of the Labour opposition Cllr Rob James told us: “Plaid Cymru Councillors are dragging this Planning Authority through the mud. They are continuously voting against applications that comply with Welsh planning law is costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. We have spent months working with the Council to address the issues with the Planning authority, yet it may now be time for Welsh Government intervention.”
Following the meeting Cllr Kevin Madge said: “I am calling on Councillor Emlyn Dole the current Leader of the Council to dismiss Councillor Gareth Thomas from the planning committee.
One Planet Council state that as of 7 May 2020 there were thirty three approved applications, comprising thirty six individual OPDs (UK wide).
The One Planet Council has lent their support to Councillor Lenny’s call for a review of the One Planet Development policy and says that it looks forward to showcasing the success stories of OPDs in Carmarthenshire and beyond. They stated: “We welcome the suggestion to incorporate aspects of One Planet thinking into other planning decisions, consistent with Carmarthenshire’s declaration of a climate emergency and net-zero ambitions, and with the requirements of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. We are disappointed, however, to see that the motion proposed by Carmarthenshire Councillor Alun Lenny (Chair of the Planning Committee) for Wednesday’s full council meeting, proposes some form of “moratorium” on new OPD applications.
“The One Planet Council is aware that people from around the world are looking at OPD as one possible solution to taking greater responsibility for how we consume and live. Wales is seen beyond our borders as a world leader and inspiration in taking the initiative for positive change. In the UK, Dartmoor and Cornwall are using the OPD framework to put in place similar initiatives, and other nations (Ireland, New Zealand) are exploring it.
“If the policy is “commendable” but “problematic”, then it is imperative that we work towards a solution to the problems.”