On Thursday the 21st of June 2012 I attended Cambridge’s West/Central area committee, where the first item on the agenda was deciding on a planning application to build a substantial new detached house at 36 Barton Road, on the corner by Barton Close, with access to the new property from the close.
Six voting councillors were present. Cllrs Reid, Tucker and Hipkin were absent, with Hipkin deciding to spend the evening at the local student debating club rather than the council meeting. County Councillor Brooks-Gordon was present, with speaking but not voting rights, but made no contribution to the discussion.
The city council’s planning officers recommended the application should be approved.
As Liberal Democrats often do, the debate was largely left to the ward councillors, here Cllrs Smith and Cantrill. Cllr Cantrill made by far the greatest contribution to the debate. Cantrill noted that the applicants had dealt with all the concerns raised during the consideration of previous applications on the site and subsequently by the [unelected] planning inspector when it had been taken to appeal. Cantrill and others said the applicants had done well to deal with all the concerns and still come up with the proposal for a substantial, quality, property on the site.
Cllr Cantrill noted however that the site had recently been included by the council in a conservation area, and that wasn’t a consideration which had been present previously, and not something the planning inspector had addressed in his report (even though the conservation area was actually brought into force prior to the the inspector issuing their decision).
Cllr Cantrill urged that the application now be judged against a “higher hurdle” in terms of aesthetics as a result of the council having brought in the conservation area; he expressed his view that the proposed property did not meet the criteria in policy 4/11 of the current local plan, a policy specifically applying to conservation areas, in that it did not “contribute positively to the character or appearance of the area”.
Cllr Cantrill and others raised the issue of minor trees (not the the major tree on the corner) being lost. Cantrill said the silver birch trees were characteristic of the close and he opposed the loss of the “characteristic greenery”.
Cllr Kightley spoke to say: “If this isn’t garden grabbing I don’t know what is”.
Other councillors agreed, they said the proposed new house would not have sufficient garden given its location in the city. Kightley said the front garden under the tree would “not be a very exciting place to be”.
The meeting went to a vote. Cllrs Bick, Smith and Reiner voted to approve the application and give permission for the property to be built. Cllrs Kightley, Rosenstiel and Cantrill voted against.
As the result was a 3:3 tie, Cllr Reiner, as chair got the chair’s casting vote. Cllr Reiner didn’t vote straight-away, she hesitated for a minute or so and then entered into a lengthy monologue explaining that while she thought the proposals were all right (she had just voted in favour of them), but as chair, she wanted to take account of the opposing views which had been raised and so had decided use her casting vote to vote against.
This behaviour was a contrast to all other uses of casting votes in planning decisions which I’ve witnessed. Usually these have been by Cllr Blencowe in the East Area and he has deployed his casting vote straight away in the same way as his original vote.
However in Parliament as I understand it if the speaker ever has to use his casting vote the established protocol is for him to do so in a manner which preserves the status-quo and allows discussion on any proposed change to continue. Mapping that principle to this planning decision would suggest using the casting vote to say no to the new building.
Ex City Councillor Clare Blair commented on Cllr Reiner’s use of the casting vote on Twitter; she pointed out that the reasons given for Cllr Reiner’s second vote were not based on planning grounds, and therefore might provide grounds for the applicants seeking a judicial review of the decision.
It appears that the great and good of the city, many of whom live in Newnham, don’t want new homes to be built near where they live. There was no hint of councillors weighing up any impact on the aesthetics of the conservation area with the benefits from the provision of a new home in the city; a new home which councillors noted would be a rather attractive and desirable property, a fabulous place for people to live.
I think this case shows the dangers of extending conservation areas to broader swathes of the city’s suburbs; as the Liberal Democrats have been doing recently, it gives councillors powers to interfere with people’s lives and property on more the basis of more flimsy grounds than they would have required before.
I also think we’ve got a problem with councillors taking very long term planning decisions based on the current appearance of an area, and on the basis of temporal planting. I suspect if this site had been cleared of greenery in advance of the application some councillors’ views might have been different.
I note that if the application had been approved, thousands of pounds in development taxes, and a new tax, apparently levied to fund planning enforcement would have been charged, it’s not clear how much the latter would have amounted to, but its at least in multiple hundreds. These taxes on new homes are in my view taxes on those who can’t afford somewhere to live in the city, and we should not be ramping them up.
Personally if I was a councillor I would not take a decision without reading all correspondence supporting and objecting to an application; in this case I’ve not done that (I don’t even know if it is all available to me, as I recently discovered not all material is on the publicly available online planning file). Based on what I have read I think the proposed property would fit in well, and would be entirely appropriate, I think there is space for the proposed new property on the plot and the garden sizes would be reasonable. Those councillors who opposed this application on the grounds of garden size should have a look around the city at the sizes of gardens people are living with, and what their colleagues are approving in the new developments, relatively in my view the garden proposed here was totally appropriate.
I think it was good to have “artists impressions”, one of which is shown above, as part of the application, I think these kinds of illustrations help councillors, and public commenters and should be encouraged; and for major schemes, I think they should perhaps be required.