During Cambridge City Council’s North Area Committee on the 9th of October 2008 councillors approved a largely retrospective planning application for two rear extensions, an external staircase and a galvanized metal flue on 113 Histon Road. The building concerned is the takeaway previously called the Frying Pan, now trading as “KFP”.
Labour Councillor Mike Todd Jones made his statement on planning matters available at the meeting, he explained he would not be voting as he had had extensive discussions with local residents on the application, and the running of the takeaway. Cllr Todd Jones explained that he would like to speak, at some length, and represent his constituents and other city residents but not vote. My own view is that Cllr Todd Jones would have been perfectly entitled to vote, and his actions in consulting and representing residents did not amount to a conflict of interest, he was simply fulfilling his duty as an elected councillor.
A public speaker, introduced as “a representative of Mrs J Karimi” who is one of the applicants spoke first. She explained the building had been used as a takeaway for some time, and the underlying reason behind the works was to improve the service they were able to provide. The representative of the applicant described the works as “minor amendments”. The reason for much of the work was she explained due to the previously approved plans proving impossible to build in compliance with building regulations.
Cllr Todd-Jones, spoke saying he had concerns with the officers report. He drew the committee’s attention to the fact this was a “tidying up” exercise, referring to the fact this was a retrospective planning application and the applicants had gone ahead with extending their premises and fitting the flue without gaining planning permission, this application was intended to legalise the situation.
Cllr Todd-Jones explained that as well as having detailed contact with residents, he had also been into the Council’s planning department and looked at the correspondence relating to the premises. He asked the Liberal Democrats on the committee if any of them had also done this, none indicated they had. Cllr Todd-Jones noted the planning officers report itsself stated:
The flue has an unfortunate visual impact and appears as an incongruous feature in a largely residential scene of terraced houses.
Cllr Todd-Jones stated that significant developments had occurred with no permission and described the City Council’s enforcement as “toothless”.
When the planning officer was invited to comment on this; he agreed: “The applicants persistently flouted the planning process”.
Mr Todd-Jones continued saying he was: “quite appalled at the whole process”, he asked what the point was of planning applications if they are not taken heed of. He told the committee the applicants had received specific advice from the city council not to go ahead with their works including the installation of the flue and that the applicants ignored this.
Cllr Todd-Jones ended his initial comments stating: “The process is seriously flawed and at fault”, he added that he felt this retrospective application was a fait accomplis.
The planning officer, Mr Collins said: “Cllr Todd-Jones is correct”.
Councillors then discussed the recommended condition to the planning permission requiring the flue be painted black in order to reduce its visual impact.
Cllr Blair then spoke, first drawing attention to the section of the officer’s report which said:
The architect has confirmed that the new metal flue replaces a smaller metal flue that previously existed in the same position on this gable.
And said it would have been useful to know the size of the original flue. However the officers report goes on to say: “The previous flue is shown on Drawing 26628/1A (application 06/1245/FUL) and on a photograph in the Design and Access Statement” so that information was clearly available to Cllr Blair had she sought it prior to the meeting.
On this point the officer responded that the previous flue was smaller, he felt the “degree to which intrusion was lesser was limited”. He said: “It is the position not the size that’s important”, and summarised that he felt the new flue was: “not that much more intrusive”.
Cllr Blair went on to discuss the refuse arrangements, she said she had received “neighbour comments” about bins in the street and asked if a condition could be added to the permission to ensure the bin storage beneath the external staircase was actually used.
The officer responded to say he was not keen on such a condition, as it would in his view have been unenforceable, he noted that if the bins were on the street then they were outside the area covered by the planning permission and he said it was impossible to set conditions which applied outside the the area owned by or under the control of the applicants. Cllr Blair persisted, and stated she had brought a draft condition with her, part of which she read out, it was to state that “Approved arrangements are to be followed”.
The officer told the committee they could apply that condition, but he warned that it may not solve the problem.
Cllr Blair asked that the proposals to include noise insulation in the walls of the outbuilding/extension be conditioned.
The officer responded that the condition could be attached but warned that without any noise reports from the Environmental Health Department it would be difficult to justify.
Cllr Ward spoke to say: “Retrospective applications are to be considered without reference to what has gone before”, he said he was not concerned about the effect on the street scene, but thought the potential noise issue was important. Having said that he went on to say that on that point he was: “happy to take on trust the experts who have written the condition”
Cllr Pitt responded to Cllr Todd-Jones’ comments. Cllr Pitt said that a retrospective planning application was one form of successful enforcement adding “this application is a successful resolution”.
Cllr Pitt also said he felt the pies sign, especially when illuminated, and satellite dishes were more intrusive than the flue, he also agreed with Cllr Ward that in his view noise was the primary issue. Cllr McGovern agreed saying that noise was one of his main concerns as well.
Cllr Upstone spoke to express a concern that the requirement to paint the flue matt black was too specific, he was concerned the flue might operate at too high a temperature for that to work effectively. He was concerned that a black flue could reduce the efficiency of extraction when compared to a silver one. Councillors were concerned that they might end up with an unsightly flue with paint flaking off it.
Mike Todd-Jones spoke again to respond to what some of the Liberal Councillors had said. He claimed the previous flue was slender, and had a smaller impact, he noted that it went up the centre of the gable. He described the impact of the flue currently under consideration as “significant”, he noted that it goes above the ridge line.
Cllr-Todd Jones noted that conditions attached to a previous application had not been adhered to, he drew attention specifically to requirements to provide a finish to masonry and to fascia boards. He also noted that where brickwork had been mandated, breeze blocks had been used.
He asked the officer what enforcement there had been, the officer again conceded there had been a lack of enforcement.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith expressed his concerns relating to: “the way we’ve got here, the way it undermines public confidence in the planning system”, he said he agreed with Cllr Pitt’s comments that the application is a resolution. He said his view was that the totality of the proposal was acceptable. He invited councillors to consider what refusal means and asked: “what would one seek to achieve with a refusal”. Cllr Nimmo-Smith was also concerned about the fact that previously approved plans: “were not buildable in compliance with building regulations”, he said this was a feature of the system. He described what councillors were doing at the meeting as a “quasi-enforcement process”.
Councillors then moved to vote on amendments to the proposed conditions; starting with making the requirement for matt-black paint less specific. They also agreed to add the condition on using the bin storage space inside the premises. The detailed wording of the conditions was left to officers.
I was surprised that councillors voted on amending the conditions before voting on whether to approve or refuse the application as a whole, this implied to me that before they got to the vote the decision was, as Cllr Todd-Jones had claimed, a foregone conclusion.
Prior to the final vote the chair asked if members had anything else to add, Cllr Todd-Jones mentioned further conditions on previous applications which had been ignored, including the requirement for obscured glass on a rear stair window. He asked if these previous, ignored, conditions could be included again. The officer advised this was not needed as the conditions on the previous application still existed.
There was then a vote on the application itself; all but Mike Todd-Jones who abstained voted in favour and the application was approved.
I think this case shows the planning system not working well. I suspect that many of the flaws have arisen due to the planning training which councillors are receiving. I think they are not strong enough characters to simply take what they have been told during their training as advice and to do the right thing as democratic representatives when it comes to determining planning applications. Following their training they treat planning decisions as a judicial process, rather than as I would expect them to, a decision made by democratic representatives in the interests of and following the wishes of their constituents.
Clearly in some cases, many even, a retrospective planning application is an appropriate resolution to an enforcement problem, however in this case there was in my mind clear need for robust enforcement action. Councillors were too quick to jump on the easy way out which I expect came from their training telling them that an approval of a retrospective application resolves the issue of non-compliance with planning laws. Councillors did not appear to be making a judgement on if in this case approving the retrospective application was the best way of dealing with someone flouting the rules. The officer’s report did not tell councillors if any enforcement notices had been served on the applicants.
The content of the courses which councillors go on to educate them about their role in the planning process is not made public. I would have hoped that a sensible principle would be to treat retrospective planning applications in the same way as applications made in advance of works. I cannot believe councillors would have permitted the flue and extension if they had formed part of an application which had been submitted in advance of the work. I expect if the applicants had approached officers with plans for the work prior to building it they would have been advised to modify them.
It is not clear how long, if any time at all, the applicants have to start complying with the conditions set at the meeting. Perhaps it is down to local residents and councillors to allow the applicants a reasonable amount of time, then if necessary inform the City Council’s enforcement team.
From following this process I have learnt that the KFP have a dedicated Pizza oven; I now plan to visit and try one of their, presumably freshly cooked on the premises, Pizzas.