Saturday, November 19, 2011

How not to create jobs in Copeland, part one ...

I fully understand the position of those Copeland Councillors who voted to grant planning permission for the new Harbourside complex.

For one thing, councillors should never lightly ignore the professional advice of planning officers, and in this case the officers had strongly recommended that permission be granted.

Councillors have a legal duty to grant applications for planning permission unless there are sound and clear cut planning reasons for refusal: "we don't like it" won't cut the mustard and I'm afraid even "the voters don't like it" won't be accepted either unless the council can show that public opposition is based on sound and clear cut planning reasons.

E.g. if members of the public have objected to a planning application on the grounds that that some aspect of the proposal would create a risk of death or injury, and the council can produce hard evidence at an appeal inquiry that this danger really exists, a decision to refuse planning permission should and probably will be upheld if there is any appeal.

However, if a council refuses planning permission because of public concerns about safety, but cannot produce any material evidence to demonstrate that such a danger really exists, it is likely that planning permission will not only be granted on appeal, but that the council - which means local taxpayers - will have to pay costs to the developer.

All of which means that councillors have to be very clear that they know exactly what they are doing if they refuse planning permission for something which their professional officers have recommended should be granted.

This is all the more true if, as was the case with the Harbourside development in Whitehaven which was given permission this week, there is no fundamental objection to the principle of the development.

So nothing I am about to write should be taken as personal criticism of the councillors who voted to grant planning permission.

Nevertheless if I were still a member of Copeland Council and had been on the Planning Panel last week, I would have joined Councillor Stephen Haraldsen who was the one member of the panel who voted against this particular scheme.

Not because I would want to stop any development of this general type on the site, but because IMHO it was possible to put forward a sound and clear cut planning reason for refusal based on the impact which this specific proposal will have on the Georgian townscape by reason of it's scale, mass, and unsympathetic design, thereby failing to preserve and enhance the historic character of the area, and because it is likely to set a precedent for further developments out of keeping with the Georgian townscape and causing additional cumulative damage to that historic character.

There have been some recent excellent developments in Whitehaven which have respected and enhanced the unique character of what is at the moment the best preserved Georgian town centre in Britain, but there have also been too many unsympathetic developments which have not. The failure of Copeland Council to give a high enough priority to the protection and enhancement of that Georgian character is the primary reason for this. The failure to make the developers have another go at designing a less intrusive scheme for the Harbourside complex is part of this pattern, as are the inappropriate design and materials for the scheme the council itself is promoting a few hundred yards away.

The new complex will generate a couple of hundred jobs, which is good news, but a better designed scheme which was a more appropriate fit to the Georgian character of Whitehaven Town Centre would also have created jobs.

This week's vote was in this sense a missed opportunity. The chairman of the company which will be developing the site, around the derelict Mark House and Park nightclub buildings, said that

“This will provide major benefits for the town centre and create a more vibrant harbour."

I agree with this, but not with his further statement that

“I honestly believe that we could not put a better scheme forward.”

I'm not questioning his sincerity but when I was planning chairman and then Planning Portfolio Holder in St Albans, I heard too many developers say things like this, but who then found that when push came to shove after the council stood firm they could indeed make a scheme more sympathetic.

Lest anyone imagines that I'm holding St Albans up as a shining example and always criticising Copeland, it might actually be very good for BOTH authorities if certain of their councillors and officers had to do an exchange and take over the jobs of their opposite numbers in the other authority for a year. In my opinion they tend to err in exactly the opposite directions.

Planning might be better in both areas if the St Albans officers were a bit less rigid in applying Conservation policies and Copeland officers a bit stricter, if certain councillors in St Albans paid a bit more attention to their officers and certain councillors in Copeland were a bit less slavish in doing so, and if the planning committees in St Albans were a little less inclined to refuse planning applications at the drop of a hat while the planning panel in Copeland were a bit more willing to do so.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right about this hideous development.
Unfortunately Copeland BC's approval of Pears House would cut the legs off any arguments about the scale, mass and unsympathetic design of this development. To argue such a case the Council would have to concede that they made a mistake with Pears House and we all know that would never happen; Copeland BC don't make mistakes.

Chris Whiteside said...

Indeed, and this will set a further precedent: each unsympathetic building approved makes it harder to resist the next one.