This evening I watched councillors refuse a planning application from Cambridge Tennis Club on Wilberforce Road. The club had applied for permission to put up floodlights on three currently unlit courts.
Cambridge City Council don’t record which why councillors vote, even on matters of substantial public interest such as this application. I have therefore noted who voted which way below:
Councillors voting to approve the application to erect the floodlights:
Tania Zmura (Castle), Simon Kightley (Castle), John Hipkin (Castle)
Councillors voting to refuse permission to erect the floodlights:
Colin Rosenstiel (Market), Julie Smith (Newnham), Sian Reid (Newnham), Rod Cantrill (Newnham).
Surprisingly, given the controversial nature of the matter,
Sarah Whitebread Lucy Nethsingha, the County Councillor for the Newnham ward in which the tennis club is situated, left the meeting before the item was reached. County Councillors are not able to vote on city council planning applications but they are given the opportunity to participate in the debate prior to the decision. County Councillors Belinda Brooks-Gordon (Castle), and Lucy Nethsingha Sarah Whitebread (Newham) also left before the item.
City Councillors Dixon and Bick were absent from the entire meeting.
All members of the committee are Liberal Democrats with the exception of John Hipkin who was thrown out of the Lib Dems and has since been elected as an independent.
Cllr Tania Zmura, as is usual for her, did not explain why she voted the way she did, and she made no contribution at all to the debate.
The formal reason given for not approving the application, agreed by those who voted against, was the anticipated negative impact on local residents if the lights were installed.
After the meeting Cllr Rosenstiel told me that as the matter was so locally contentious he voted with the ward councillors. He didn’t explain this reasoning behind his voting in the meeting though, which would have been useful. Voting following the ward councillors is a line Liberal Democrats often use, and is an action consistent with the Liberal Democrat extreme approach to localism (rather than making decisions at the appropriate level).
The main problems:
Cllr Sian Reid said:
“I should have done my homework more thoroughly before coming”.
This statement encapsulates one of the key and recurring, problems with planning applications being determined at area committees, and one which raised its head during this particular deliberation. Unlike members of the central planning committee, most members of the area committees clearly don’t do enough work prior to the meetings to understand the matters they are being asked to determine. Often they have questions which could have been addressed had they been into the council’s planning offices to look at the full case files. (Alternatively councillors could demand more detailed reports from their officers, and a better online system through which full details of applications could be obtained; such a system would help both councillors and the wider public. ).
Information councillors were lacking in this particular case included :
- The demands of the tennis club ie. how often would they want to use the lights?
- Had the council planning officer considered if the lights proposed were of a brightness in excess of Lawn Tennis Association minimum recommendations? (Councillors were very keen the tennis club ought only have lighting to a minimum standard, rather than what they had determined they required).
- What exactly were planning officers intending as a condition with respect to “directional hoods”
- The plan available at in the meeting papers didn’t even clearly identify the courts which are to be flood-lit though the representative of the tennis club explained which had been chosen, and why, when he spoke.
The fact the planning officer who had written the report was not present was a problem; the officer presenting to the committee did not appear to have been sufficiently briefed by her colleague and couldn’t answer many of the councillor’s questions.
Had councillors used the many months of time they had since the application was submitted in August to understand the needs of the club and views of residents and others they could have worked out reasonable conditions to enable them to make the proposals something they could support.
The planning application had been received by the council on the 3rd August 2009; the council has clearly been very slow in bringing it to the committee. Cllr Julie Smith asked why there had been this delay but planning officer Sarah Dyer didn’t answer.
While officers and councillors didn’t mention it, as I understand it the applicant could gone straight to an appeal, on the grounds of the council’s failure to determine the application, eight weeks after the application had been submitted. The tennis club’s persistence with the local democratic route, despite the delays, is in my view highly commendable.
The planning officer clarified that the condition requiring the hedgerow to the south of the site be improved, so that it could provide more shielding of the light to protect wildlife in the pond opposite from the light, referred to hedge at the edge of the tennis club site.
The officer reported that the Institute of Astronomy had been consulted. It appeared there were suggestions that it had recently claimed it had not been consulted and it appears that given the delay since it was approached in August it had forgotten.
The planning officer’s report states:
With regard to the impacts upon the Institute of Astronomy I consider the imposition of the condition regarding hours of illumination and illumination output as discussed above will serve to mitigate their impact.
Two objectors attended the meeting to speak in person. Six individuals and two residents associations had submitted objections.
The first objector introduced themselves as a resident owner of an overlooking property. He said he was also a member of the tennis club, as were members of his family. He complained about the increased “browning” of the conservation area. He expressed a concern about the effect on the bat population. He also said that increased noise from playing tennis, traffic, and noise from increased use of the clubhouse resulting from late night tennis playing. He also said that due to global warming we the energy usage of the floodlights ought be considered.
The second objector spoke on behalf of the North Newnham Residents association. She said there were a variety of views within the association, with some objecting to any expansion of the lighting, and others supporting some expansion. She said there was unanimity that the lights proposed were not the right lights. She said the new lights proposed would be much more intense than what is there already; and said the hoods ought have been much more clearly specified than they had been. Turning to the impact on the Institute of Astronomy, she said it was inspirational to have such an institution in Cambridge. She suggested that the proposed lighting was in excess of the Lawn Tennis Association’s advised minimum standards of lighting. She urged councillors not to approve the application for floodlighting in this year, and week of the Copenhagen summit. Cllr Julie Smith nodded vigorously while this latter point (which I think is ridiculous) was being made.
Tim Arthur spoke in favour of the application. He said he was the elected chairman of the tennis club as well as being a very near neighbor, living in Perry Court. He said he’d had extensive discussions with his neighbors as he’d have to face them every day and had modified the plans in light of their comments – they had chosen to seek to illuminate three courts nearest the Coton footpath and furthest away from the Perry Court houses.
He described the tennis club as community based, not for profit, organisation and told the meeting the club’s efforts to promote tennis had been recognised by the Lawn Tennis association. The meeting was told that membership had grown from 400 in 2004 to 860 now, with half being under eighteen and 95% of members from within the city.
Councillors were club was open to all and with the support of the council it was able to offer a number of free courses to the over 45s (It would be fantastic if the council, and others funders such as the lottery, more openly advertise it when they make opportunities like that available!) (See: The Club’s Coaching Page for more.)
Mr Arthur reported that 200 children had turned up for a recent open day and that evening and weekend sessions were essential given people’s school / work commitments limited the hours available to play tennis. He also said there was a shortage of indoor or floodlit tennis courts in Cambridge. A special feature of the club, that it enables lots of social play, including sessions where members could turn up and play. He explained that people wouldn’t come to such sessions if they didn’t stand a good chance of getting a court.
It was explained the high poles (8m) were required to ensure that the light was focused on the court. He said that while it sounds counter-intuitive the higher the pole the more focused the light. He also said that the highest quality of lighting was being proposed so that youth coaching to a high standard could take place on the courts.
Mr Arther concluded his comments by saying not being able to play because of a lack of floodlights, at this time of year, is club members’ biggest issue.
Cllr Julie Smith
Cllr Smith declared an interest a the City Council’s executive councillor for Arts and Recreation. She said she was a supporter of the tennis club, but expressed a view that allowing use of the lights between 0700 and 2200 for 365 days a year was excessive. She said she wanted a better, more restrictive condition, to ensure the club didn’t use its lights all the time.
Cllr Smith also questioned if something more restrictive than seven days a week ought be placed as a condition.
She said the points made about light pollution had to be considered.
Cllr Rod Cantrill
Cllr Cantrill said that lighting was already in use in the area and there was a long standing issue with respect to the university athletics track and the existing floodlights on the applicant’s site. He said that on the university site there were conditions on the usage and form of the lights. He said he would seek some reference to the work which had been done on that site in the conditions for this application.
Neither Cllr Cantrill or anyone else had the details of the conditions on the university track with them.
Cllr Cantrill said that he had personally objected to the work (floodlighting) on the university site but he accepted that the conditions had minimised the effects. Cllr Cantrill said that if the application was approved there would be a need to look carefully at the conditions.
Cllr Sian Reid
Cllr Reid complained that an email from Morcom Lunt had not been faithfully reproduced in an amendment sheet supplied to councillors; and asked if the councils planning officers had looked into the Lawn Tennis Association’s standards for floodlighting. Cllr Reid said that in Newnham floodlights on sports pitches were often left on when there was no one playing. Cllr Reid said there was a need to be “tight about hours”.
I would have thought a condition that the lights had to go off with in say 20 minutes of the courts ceasing to be used would be practical; and a technological solution to ensure / encourage compliance possible to implement.
Cllr John Hipkin
Cllr Hipkin praised the objectors’ conciliatory approach to the matter. He said he didn’t object to the expansion and advancement of the Lawn Tennis Club, but he was in a difficult position as he is not a technical expert on lighting issues. He said he was not going to say yes to the proposals if he was not convinced that the lights proposed were those which will have the least deleterious effect possible. He said he agreed with those who want to defer the application as there was a need for more technical information.
In stating that he was aware some wanted to defer the application it appears that Cllr Hipkin had some awareness of what the Liberal Democrats had been discussing prior to the meeting.
The meeting’s chair, Cllr Kightley, said he supported the suggestion to defer. (The West Central Area committee regularly appear to defer, or consider deferring planning decisions because they are unprepared to make decisions).
Cllr Julie Smith said she was concerned by the suggestion to defer, particularly as the application had taken so long, four months, to get to the committee.
Cllr Cantrill said he wanted to defer the decision. He said he wanted an opportunity for the objectors and applicant to come to agreement; and said councillors didn’t have the information they required to set the conditions there and then. He said as well as more information he also wanted the Lawn Tennis Association guidance to refer to.
The council officer interjected to tell Cllr Cantrill the role of councillors was to assess the application in front of them with reference to the council’s planning policies, and not with reference to LTA guidance. She said he had the information available to him to do what he was being asked to do. In response to this comment from the officer Cllr Cantrill withdrew his support for deferring the decision.
Towards the Vote
Cllr Kightley tried to move to a vote, but Cllr Julie Smith stopped him and tried to come up with a “condition”. She suggested adding a condition on hours, the detail of which (the hours) would be decided outside the meeting and approved by the chair.
Cllr Hipkin’s response to this was to loudly, and disdainfully, say: “Sorry, What?!” expressing astonishment that any councillor could consider
what was being proposed as reasonable. (Cllr Smith appears not to mind decisions being made behind closed doors).
Cllr Julie Smith reiterated her point that allowing floodlighting every night of the year was unacceptable to her.
In a last ditch attempt to come up with an acceptable condition, Cllr Kightley sugested a condition allowing floodlighting five nights a week; the question of which nights was then raised, with Cllr Reid saying that as councillors didn’t know what the club’s needs were they couldn’t make progress.
The club’s chairman was still present, and itching to interject. He asked to be able to state some points of fact on two occasions but his requests were denied. Previously during planning applications more pushy applicants and objectors have just shouted out important facts; and at a recent West/Central committee Cllr Dixon even proposed suspending a meeting mid-planning application to enable a discussion between councillors and an applicant to take place.
The question of the floodlights was then voted on. The application was refused with 4 councillors against the floodlights and 3 in favour (as detailed above).
- A previous planning farce, with unprepared councillors, at the West Central Area Committee
- Planning Permission for 13 Bulstrode Gardens Cambridge West / Central Councillors unprepared again.