On the 18th of August 2014 I watched Cambridge City Councillors unanimously deny planning permission for an extension on the grounds it would be too big. The councillors making the decision appeared unaware that the applicant had already been given permission by the council for an even bigger extension and that he was actually seeking permission to build a smaller alternative.
By rejecting the application for the smaller extension on the grounds it was too big councillors left the applicant with the option of either appealing against the decision, or building the larger extension he already had permission for.
After the decision was made the applicant, unprecedentedly, addressed councillors telling them that their actions were bizarre and ill-informed and that their decision to reject his proposal for a smaller extension on the grounds it was too big would result in him building the even bigger version he already had permission for.
Planning farces are common in Cambridge but this was certainly a notable case to add to the ever growing list.
Compare the approved, and rejected, proposals side by side:
More Details of the Farce
The officer whose recommendation of approval councillors unanimously decided to go against had stated in the report to the committee:
A very similar extension was approved in 2013, which is a material consideration which carries significant weight
Councillors however completely ignored this during their deliberations. The previously approved extension, for which permission was still in-force, was very similar, but extended further towards the neighbouring property than the one under deliberation in August 2014.
It is notable that no councillors called the previous application for the very similar extension in to a committee, allowing their officers to approve it on their behalf.
The application under consideration was first sent in to the council in February 2014, it was being considered by the committee in August after a deferral. Councillors had taken well in excess of their target of eight weeks to make a decision on a planning application. I think as residents of Cambridge we’ve let this applicant down by collectively, through our councillors, taking so long to make a decision. This kind of delay by the state results in people’s lives being put on hold, and in cases like this stops people living where they want to or results in people living crammed in to fewer bedrooms than they would prefer.
I filmed the consideration of the application and have made the deliberations and vote available. The video is embedded above.
Notable Points From The Deliberation
- Councillors appeared confused as to the number of existing, and proposed, bedrooms in the property. The officers had not helped by failing to include these key numbers in their report. The officer present at the meeting did not provide any correction or clarification when councillors came up with numbers of bedrooms the property had at the time of the deliberation. I would expect councillors to have read the full planning file including the submitted plans and all representations prior to deliberating and voting, but as they appeared not to have a grasp of the application perhaps the officer should have provided more assistance.
- submitted drawings however show just one bedroom in the loft. Cllr Dryden stated “there are three or four bedrooms up in the roof now”. The
- Cllr Dryden said he had brought the matter to the committee due to neighbour’s concerns about “six or seven bedrooms in the house already”. The plans submitted show four existing bedrooms; though it is of course possible that ground floor rooms are being used as bedrooms and not as lounges. Later Cllr Dryden said “there are six bedrooms in the property and you are going to have two more”.
- Cllr Ashton said “if we are going to have seven bedrooms there”. My reading of the plans is that they describe one extra bedroom on the first floor, taking the total from 4 to 5.
- Cllr Ashton said “seven bedrooms there is seven cars”.
- Cllr Pippas said: “Just as a rule of thumb for the parking usually every three rooms you have one vehicle so obviously if you are having six bedrooms you would expect a couple of vehicles…. the rule of thumb is half of what you are building is the requirement”.
- Cllr Pippas said “if you have over six bedrooms in a small dwelling and are building a couple more that’s definitely not a family”.
- After making his statement that in his view the property was not to be occupied by a family Cllr Pippas smiled at the planning officer and asked if he could “find a legal reason why we can refuse that”.
- Councillors appeared to openly admit to their real reasons for objecting to the application were different from those they eventually formally gave. This is quite common and something never reflected in the notes on decisions published by the council or in the official minutes but is something the video of a deliberation records and makes available.
- Councillors appeared to really oppose the extension on the basis of a baseless, and irrelevant, fear the property might end up being used as a shared house. Councillors assumed the residents of the shared house they were imagining would each own a car, creating a parking problem.
- Councillor Pippas, a Liberal Democrat, asked how many beds were in the property and where they were located. He asked the officer: “Does anybody know how many beds there are in each room? Has anybody been inside the particular place? Are there four beds in each bedroom for example? If there are six bedrooms currently, how many beds are in each bedroom? How many people do really reside there?”. The planning officer responded to say: “the number of beds there are in each room is not relevant to the application”.
- Cllr Avery, another Liberal Democrat, said : “We don’t have any information on use do we, we just have suspicions based on numbers of bedrooms and I suppose a history of similar buildings going a similar way.”
- Cllr Moore, another Liberal Democrat, said: “we all have our strong suspicions but it doesn’t look as if we can do much about them”.
- The planning officer at the meeting suggested to councillors that it could be expected that residents of Fernlea Close would use cars given its distance from the city centre.
- Despite no provision for cycle parking being included in the plans councillors were advised they shouldn’t reject the application on that basis given it could be addressed in a condition. The officer said: “as a semi-detached house clearly there is space to put cycles on the site”.
The property in question here was built as a three bedroom semi-detached house; with two reasonably sized bedrooms and a smaller bedroom on the first floor. The householder has already created an additional en-suite bedroom in the loft which the council has confirmed has come within permitted development rights.
The proposals now are to add a bedroom to the first floor and increase the sizes of some of the existing bedrooms to give four good sized bedrooms there in addition to the one in the loft. The extension would also give more ground floor space.
I don’t think house sharing is something councillors, or those who elect them, should be fearful of. I’ve expanded on my views on this in my article: Labour Plans to Push House Sharers Out of Cambridge. Shared houses are crucial to Cambridge’s economy, and enabling people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to live in the city to do so. If there is a nuisance caused by those living in a property the state’s response to that shouldn’t be different depending on if those living there are related or not.
If the property was to be converted into a large House of Multiple Occupation then it would require separate planning permission. No such application had been made in respect of this property and that wasn’t what councillors should have been considering.
People need, or want, houses of various different sizes. I think it would be wrong of councillors to oppose properties gaining no more than four bedrooms; some people have large families, some want room for elderly family members to live with them and others have other reasons for wanting extra rooms, as offices, for visitors, or for other activities such as art or music.
I think extending houses to provide additional accommodation can help provide desperately needed accommodation in Cambridge. As the city gets bigger we can expect the density of housing in some areas to increase. Councillors have a role in regulating this, but I don’t think they should seek to prevent it.
My view is economic factors provide a good degree of effective regulation alone, and ensure that people’s needs are met. Councillors should only interfere with economics, and prevent people doing what they want with their properties, in exceptional circumstances, such as where there is a significant negative impact on others.
I’ve personally experienced Cambridge City Council taking an interest in where beds are in a property I have lived in (they wrongly wanted to alter the council tax liability on the basis of the arrangement of the furniture and who was sleeping where). I don’t think the state ought get involved in who sleeps where within a property. I think it only becomes reasonable to ask such questions on safety grounds when it comes to regulating large, commercial, houses of multiple occupancy.
I think we need to elect better councillors; and encourage existing councillors to read all the relevant material before taking planning decisions. I think we should demand more for our money from the planning officers, in this case I think the officer should have stepped in during the meeting to bring clarity to the question over the existing and proposed number of bedrooms, and the impact of the decision in the light of the existing permission.
It must have been immensely frustrating for the applicant to have councillors make inaccurate statements which he was unable to challenge. The one person who was able to speak up and clarify matters, the planning officer, didn’t.