On Monday the 5th of March 2012 I observed City Councillors on Cambridge’s South Area committee consider a planning application to divide a property into two, enabling each part to be let separately.
This was an interesting case because almost all councillors ditched normal planning practice and made a decision on the basis of information which would usually be considered immaterial to the planning matter in-front of them.
Councillors were told that the property would bring in more rent if it was let as two separate dwellings, than as a whole. They were also told that the income from renting the property out would go towards the residential care costs of Mr. Francis Conmy, the applicant. Mr Conmy was paraded in front of the committee, in his wheelchair, by his son, who addressed the committee. Mr Conmy is already a resident of a residential care home on Queen Ediths Way.
The personal argument for special treatment has been redacted by the council from the planning application form, but it was included in the officer report to the committee and reiterated in person by the applicant’s son.
The application was for permission to split the property for a period of two years.
City Council planning officers had recommended refusal of permission on the basis that the properties would be a poor place to live for future occupiers if the two parts were let separately, one key factor being overlooking. The report raised the point: “It may be argued that it is for the future occupants to make the decision about living in such close proximity to non-related persons”.
Small planning matters like this are often dealt with entirely by officers rather than councillors, under so called delegated powers. Labour Councillor for Cherry Hinton Cllr Dryden called this one into the committee, to let councillors hear the representations on Mr Conmy’s behalf, and allow councillors to consider them.
The application was also subject to an intervention from Cambridge MP Julian Huppert who had written to the council’s head of planning asking that the personal circumstances in this case be considered; Huppert’s was the only third party representation on the application.
When addressing the committee Mr Conmy’s son briefly argued the overlooking wasn’t as bad as the officer’s report made out, but primarily focused on where the money would be going: to fund his father’s care. He said his father had made a significant contribution to Cambridge, as the director of a building firm employing many people, and urged councillors to put aside the formal planning process, find their hearts, and help him raise more money. The committee was told that even when rented in two halves, the rental income would only cover a fraction of Mr Conmy’s care costs.
Councillors, particularly Cllr Blackhurst, made emotive and rather pompous speeches about how they were going to bravely “do the right thing” by letting Mr Conmy make a bit more cash out of the property.
Cllr Shelia Stuart didn’t appear to have been following what was going on, she asked the planning officer very late in the deliberation: “Why can’t they just let the property as a whole?” “Why can’t this be treated like people renting rooms in a shared house?”. Cllr Stuart didn’t appear to understand that this was about the applicant wishing to maximise the return from his property at the potential expense of future tenants. Cllr Stuart’s question, which in my view was not rhetorical but based on genuine bafflement, was not addressed by the officer and Cllr Stuart didn’t push for a clarification.
Councillors voted to overturn the officer’s recommendation to refuse the application. No councillors voted against, and only the meeting’s chair Cllr Amanda Taylor, abstained. During the debate, and before the vote, Cllr Taylor had explained her position by saying:
“The committee is supposed not to consider personal circumstances when considering planning applications”.
The other councillors made clear that the reason behind their votes was entirely down to the fact they’d been told the income from the rental was going to go towards Mr Conmy’s care. The officer told them their reason would be recorded and said that following their decision based on the personal circumstances of the applicant now, if the circumstances were the same in two years time they would be expected to make the same decision again (I’m not sure that’s right).
While I too was influenced by the passionate and emotive case put forward by Mr Conmy’s son, I think, and hope, I would have discarded it as an irrelevant factor if I had been asked to consider the application. Mr Conmy’s financial position is not relevant.
The debate about if people ought have to sell their homes to fund their care; or if they ought be able to pass on a property to their sons and daughters is not one for councillors on the South Area Committee when considering a planning application. Helping someone maximise income from their assets is also not their role.
We shouldn’t in my view have a situation where councillors consider how good a cause the profits arising from the approval of an application in-front of them will be going to. Where would this lead? Developers promising to make substantial donations to charity and turning up to planning meeting with pictures of cute kittens, promising to spend some of their profits on rehoming? On the flip-side would councillors start considering the adverse affect on neighbours’ house prices, their impact potential retirement incomes, of proposed developments?
I would have focused on considering if when the properties were split, each provided an acceptable standard of accommodation. The planning officer’s view, presented in the report, was:
I consider that this arrangement of dwellings would not be considered acceptable for a new development or a converted property and that two years is a considerable length of time.
One concern I have is that when the door to the main property is blocked up, the annex would only have one door, located next to the kitchen area. If I was to live there I’d want to be sure I could escape through the windows of the bedroom and lounge if that the door become blocked, for example by fire. That’s something I’d have asked a question on, and if I was in a position to vote and my vote would have depended on the answer. I am mindful though that a window which might be an acceptable fire-esape for a young healthy person, might not be much use to someone whose mobility was limited. I would not be surprised to be told the whole question was a building regulations matter and not a planning one.
It appears from the plans and images available that the annex is properly built (I’ve been in some very shoddy extensions and annexes in Cambridge), and the walls between it and the rest of the property are the old outside walls of the house, confirming this would make me happier with splitting the property – I’d be opposed if the walls to separate the prospective unrelated tenants were plywood or plasterboard.
I note the size of the bedroom in the annex is very small, it’s smaller than the property’s single garage. I would describe it as a single rather than a double.
I think the councillors ought to also have considered how the exterior of the property is to be shared between the two new units. The planning officer appears to envisage that the resident(s) of the annex might end up parking in the road, and not having the use of any outside space.
In summary I think this annex provides a much higher standard of accommodation than many of the sheds, coal houses, and similar I’ve seen people in Cambridge living in, many of which I don’t think are habitable. I think it is likely (subject to the questions I’ve raised) this one is habitable and it ought be up to the market if anyone’s prepared to rent it. It might suit someone needing short term accommodation, or maybe a commuter needing accommodation during the week. Using planning conditions to restrict usage to a certain number of weeks a year, or even days per week, might be an option, but that’s likely just to create a nuisance to the eventual tenant and would be hard to enforce.
Ideally we would leave almost everything to “the market” but the accommodation situation is so dire in Cambridge that very many people are living in utterly unsuitable accommodation. There is a market for what planners, building inspectors, and I suspect a majority of residents, would consider uninhabitable, so regulation is needed to prevent overcrowding and to ensure accommodation is safe.
My own view is that even after discounting where any additional profits are to be spent this is a finely balanced decision. On the one hand I think the owner ought be as free as possible to do what they like with their property, and to do what the market is calling for, and provide a much needed extra unit of accommodation which may well perfectly suit someone’s needs. Against that is the question of if allowing the two separate units, which are so close, means that living in either becomes unpleasant; if it’s largely just unpleasantness, rather than the arrangement being unsafe I think I’d approve the application and let the market do its work.
There are much worse circumstances which arise where a householder rents part of their home out to a lodger; and that is much less regulated than this case. I’m aware of places in the city where lodgers don’t get access to kitchen facilities for example; that’s a really undesirable way to live.
Overall I support planning being a democratic process and if councillors want to throw away the large chunks of the rule book; that’s fine, they can then go on to stand on that record at the next election, and candidates can make clear if they’d do things differently. I’d like to see local councillors, (and magistrates for that matter) less constrained and freer to make what they see as the right choice based on the evidence before them.
Those councillors who thought it right that how the profits arising from granting a planning application ought be considered in this case were: Blackhurst, Al Bander, Ashton, Dryden, McPherson, Pippas, Stuart and Swanson.
I’d probably have voted the same way, subject to the clarifications to be sought noted above, but for very different reasons.
Julian Huppert’s Representation
Cambridge MP Julian Huppert had written to the City Council’s Head of Planning, Patsy Dell, (Salary £70,263/year) regarding the application:
Ms Anne Fisher, 1 Greystoke Road, Cambridge CB1
I have been contacted by my constituent Ms Fisher who is concerned
about the planning restriction that is placed on her father’s house,
and separate self contained annex, that prevents the two units from
being let out separately.
My understanding is that Ms Fisher’s father has had to move into
residential care and that she and her siblings want to rent out the
two parts of the property to pay the not inconsiderable costs of his
nursing care. She is anxious for the current planning condition to be
lifted to enable the property to be used for this purpose.
I appreciate the reason for the City Council not wanting to lift the
planning restriction on a general basis. However, I would be grateful
if you could look into the issue that Ms Fisher raises about the
lifting of the restriction on a personal basis. Please find enclosed
a copy of the email that sets out the issues raised in full for your
I would be grateful if you could look into the issue that my
constituent has raised and respond to me in a form that I can pass on
to my constituent.
Member of Parliament for Cambridge
The attachment is not present. The council has an online only planning system now, there is no paper file to refer to, so this means councillors would also have had no access to the details. It is not clear if the attachment has been intentionally redacted or if a mistake has been made.