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the Bunker: from no-no to go-go, courtesy of HBC's planners.

Rocklands’ Bunker: from no-no to go-go, courtesy of HBC’s planners.

The Bunker: planning chief provides handy advice on how to turn refusal into approval

Many questions remain as to how the notorious ‘Bunker’ in Rocklands caravan park was fast-tracked from refusal to planning consent. Digging in the files, St Leonards exile, Richard Heritage, uncovers a revealing memo of a meeting between Hastings Borough Council’s then development manager and the owners of the caravan park – and finds that the two applications for the same proposal were assessed completely differently.

After the unexpected decision by the planning inspector to allow one of the most contentious buildings in the borough to remain, albeit with some very minor reductions to its size, there are prevailing issues in the history of how this all came about.

Behind every contentious planning application you will find a paper trail. As expected with Rocklands and the ‘Bunker’, there is just that. While the Save Ecclesbourne Group (SEG) have skilfully scrutinised the planning polices, design, history and other essentials to substantiate the plethora of deficiencies and errors, the question remains: Is there a ‘smoking gun’ behind the two applications? How did a refusal so rapidly change to permission to build? Both applications were delegated decisions – decided by planners without any oversight by the elected representatives on the planning committee – due to there being less than three objections filed.

On examining the two planning decisions )HS/FA/12/00471 of 3 August 2012 and HS/FA/12/00952  of 4 February 2013) one cannot avoid perceiving the remarkable contradictions in the appraisal of the same building by two different planning officers within the same office.

Take the first attempt, where the 471 application was resolutely refused without question by then development manager, Ray Crawford, who has since ridden off into the sunset. In the content of his delegated report refusing the building, he made a very detailed case over four specific reasons clearly rejecting the application, citing 11 planning policies with which he considered the application to be in conflict to support his refusal and his judgement as to why this building would be totally inappropriate for the Country Park.

Among various significant comments, Mr Crawford writes that, “The main issues of consideration for this development in relation to impact on the landscape, would be the size increase of the new dwelling,” after which he notes that, “The proposal fails to protect and enhance the High Weald AONB [Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty] landscape and, therefore, also conflicts with paragraph 115, section 11 of the NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework] policy EN4 of the Hastings Planning Strategy.” This observation was supported by the High Weald AONB Unit which affirmed that the Bunker would “not contribute to the conservation or enhancement of the natural beauty of the AONB.”

Criticism continues throughout the document, such as this remark: “This will be detrimental to the established views eastwards from the conservation area, damaging the setting of the conservation area and its overall significance as a designated heritage asset.”

Anyone reading this decision to refuse the build would surmise it was the end of the case, given the plethora of clear and firm reasons given for terminating the idea once and for all. However, little did we know that not all was dead and buried here.

Clearly refusing to throw in the towel, the Guilliards, owners of the Rocklands caravan site, continued their pursuit for this build to happen. A revealing memo (DCQ/12/00953)  disinterred from the planning file discloses how Mr Crawford met on site with the Guilliards and their agent, John Waterhouse, on 16 August 2012, just days after the 471 refusal. From the content of what appears to have been a cordial meeting, his notes certainly gave them positive advice on how to find ways to overcome the refusal and turn it around.

“The accommodation is very spacious and doesn’t accommodate many people — looks like a house rather than a holiday let,” he told them, followed by this advice: “Add another bedroom . . . indicate a sofa bed in the lounge + disabled access rooms — it’s a high quality holiday let not a permanent home.” He further pointed out that they should make a “Detailed business case,” approaching Kevin Boorman, the council’s head of Communications & Marketing, about the demand for this type of accommodation. He added that they should: “Provide information to show that it [the building] would not be prominent from the country park.” Summing up, he advised them to: “Go through reasons for refusal one by one and address each in detail.”

With this helpful advice and guidance, in just under four months, the renowned 952 application was validated by the planning department on 10 December 2012: the ‘Bunker’ was back on the planning table. This was the perfect time of the year: with the Christmas period and festivities descending on all, many official issues get overlooked. Section 11 of the application form asked: “Please state how foul sewage is to be disposed of.” The box for ‘Unknown’ was ticked, and nobody from HBC queried this. This happened with both 471 and 952. In fact the period for submitting objections to the 952 application expired that Yuletide week.

There is a total lack of resemblance in content between the 952 ‘Delegated Authority’ report permitting the Bunker compared with the previous application which was refused. From the first page of both reports there are glaring differences; each describes itself as: “Report from: Development Manager,” when in fact 952 is signed by Sam Batchelor, a senior planning officer, while the space left for development manager, Ray Crawford, to authenticate the approval is left blank.

Again we see a marked difference in the attitude of the High Weald AONB Unit. Its comment, “The development does not appear to affect the components of natural beauty….and the development is unlikely to have any significant impacts on the AONB,” represents a total turn-around to what it said of the 471 application.

In his ‘Considerations’, Mr Batchelor, unlike his chief, states how, “The design is not considered to be overbearing…..the contemporary building with rendered walls and bi-fold doors would be in keeping with the character and appearance of the surrounding area.” Further on he states, “the bulk of the development is not larger to any significant degree,” yet on the following page he declares, “The proposed building will be higher than the existing structure,” and notes that “The new building will be constructed on the footprint of the existing structure.” However, in comparing the image of the original bungalow at 4.4 metres and that of the new Bunker which was supposedly 5.6 metres but finally ended up, by some quirky error, at 6.2 metres, it is evident the new structure was never intended to be a “like-for-like” structure, as stated.

The advice given in Mr Crawford’s memo to gather support from Kevin Boorman was duly taken; the report notes that Mr Boorman “supports the application and confirms that the applicants are well established and run a very professional business . . . without product improvements like this, jobs will be at risk.” However, if the applicants really run a “very professional business,” it is hard to see why any jobs should be at risk.

Gone in the content of Mr Batchelor’s report are objections to policies C6, DG1, EN1, EN4, L2 and L3. Also absent is any of the previous detailed reasoning why the ‘Bunker’ was not acceptable. The decision letter of 19 July 2012 for 471 cited as reasons for refusal:

an undesirable and unjustified degree of intensification of development within the site, which would be detrimental to the protection of this part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and contrary to paragraph 115, section 11 of the NPPF, Policies DG1(b) and (c), L2, L3 and T7(b) of the Hastings Local Plan 2004 and Policy EN4 of the Hastings Planning Strategy . . .

However, there is no explanation in 952 as to why that reasoning no longer applies. How could such a contradictory report on the same proposal come from the same planning department just six months later?

952 was similar — in some respects at least. The report even stated, “This application follows refusal HS/FA/12/00471 for the same proposal”.

By declining to sign off such a significant application as this, was Mr Crawford intending to distance himself from it all? Or was it just a contradiction too far for the same officer to sign two so diametrically different reports?

Yes, the appeal may be over, but there remain too many unexplained issues still awaiting an answer. However, in view of the plethora of issues and problems with this site and these planning applications, what we really need is a public inquiry. Both sides, it would appear, have got away with far too much.

 

Posted 06:17 Tuesday, Aug 9, 2016 In: Home Ground

15 Comments

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  1. Heritage

    Thank you Michael for your comments on the article. I am still waiting to hear back from Mr Biggs on what his planning qualifications are and who he knows either in the council or maybe the Rocklands owners.

    He was certainly rapid to defend both land owner and council but now appears to have gone to ground. I might suggest Mr Biggs if you feel my article is “slanderous” as you put it, you might want to submit your own to the Online Times. Tell us how we have all got it so wrong

    Comment by Heritage — Monday, Aug 15, 2016 @ 18:06

  2. barney

    Well said Michael Madden – but when decent and principled people in this town stand up and attempt to bring some ethics into the equation they are slapped down and silenced.

    A case in point – The horrific destruction of the large site up at West Hill Road is a prime example. The head of the planning department was alerted to the illegal slaughter/destruction of protected wildlife on this important site, and the illegal felling of trees during the nesting season and what did she do? She said the planning application from 1989 was valid so just too bad.

    She failed to mention that the planning consent contained a vast range of conditions and mitigation procedures and she also failed to acknowledge the more RECENT ecology and geotechnical reports in 2004 which raised a whole new level of concerns and restrictions. Failed also to menton the Policies which apply to this site via the recently ratified Local Plan.
    Thus we appear to have a planning department which happily condones contravention of the Wildlife Legislation Act. If ever a council planning department needed an independent investigation it is right here in this town.
    One has to wonder for how much longer residents will have to tolerate this bullying approach and silencing of residents valid concerns.

    Comment by barney — Monday, Aug 15, 2016 @ 11:18

  3. Michael Madden

    A very good explanation by Mr Heritage,

    It is interesting to note that Mr Briggs excuses a Labour dominated council with a logic that defies reason, and says: “You may come to miss the work of the local authority officers”?

    Ha, Ha. How could anoyne miss our planning officers? They could easily have refused the application merely by sticking with their initial reasons for refusal.

    He says that the Tory government has:”just passed legislation that will allow developers to simply appoint their own ‘consultants’ to process their planning applications for them, bypassing the local authority completely.” But HBC planning officers created the same outcomes even before there was legal pressure to cave into pressure from developers. It is the “why?” that is so hard to fathom.

    Yes, it is dreadful that the law is becoming even more pro development, because more and more of Hastings unique AONBs and SSSIs will go under the digger.

    But if Labour councillors disagree with this they can stand up and be counted or stand down as a matter of principle. However, the truth is – whether claims of corruption are true or false – that it is very rare to find a man or woman of strong principles among councillors or planners.

    That is why Hastings is still Mugsborough, because as Alf Cobb said over a century ago: these practices will continue until decent and principled people stand up to take their place.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Sunday, Aug 14, 2016 @ 14:02

  4. Spiney Norman

    In response barney’s question: “Just what do residents have to do to prevent these irresponsible and seemingly illegal acts?” The answer is to hold the Council to account by first exhausting the Council’s complaints procedure and when you have done this (and possibly been labelled by the Council as a “persistent/vexatious” complainant) apply to the Local Government Ombudsman for justice. Which is free.

    Should this fail then you may wish to consider applying for a Judicial Review and request a Protective Costs Order to cover the costs.

    Comment by Spiney Norman — Saturday, Aug 13, 2016 @ 14:34

  5. Andy Ammo

    What an illuminating article about what goes on in the HBC planning department. The Council have a lot of explaining to do, but it would be too much to expect that. Why represent local residents when you can represent developers? The selective interpretation of planning law is so dubious.

    Comment by Andy Ammo — Friday, Aug 12, 2016 @ 14:11

  6. barney

    There are indeed ongoing situations where this council refuses to concede any wrongdoing – the colossal site up at West Hill Road has very recently been flattened with any vestige of wildlife and flora extinguished. Despite the importance of this site as reported in the Local Plan all caveats and conditions have been blatantly ignored and no mitigation processes in place to protect that which has legal protection. Protectd flora and fauna all gone. Trees felled during the nesting season. A horror story of vast proportions.

    The planning department insists that the old 1989 planning application is valid and there is nothing that can be done. There is a government document which states that valid or not, this does not remove the the need to comply properly with any other legal requirements such as consents required under the Building Regulations, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 or the Listed Building and Conservation Areas Act 1990.

    The extract from the Local Plan also demands that the applicants will be required to submit an ecology and arboriculture report. It would also be necessary to include an Ecololgical Constraints and Opportunities Plan and incorporate appropriate conservation and mitigation measures as recommended by this ECOP. And this report must make specific reference to the presence of the Local Wildlife Site which is within the site.

    How shocking that none of this has been implemented and the site is now razed to the ground with nothing remaining…just a lone seagull foraging amongst the skip perched on the land. And now the council refuses to have any further dialogue.

    Just what do residents have to do to prevent these irresponsible and seemingly illegal acts? Residents do not have the limitless finance enjoyed by this council to spend on expensive lawyers. It is a very unfair playing field and residents need to to stand up and shout. Otherwise these acts will simply continue.

    Comment by barney — Thursday, Aug 11, 2016 @ 17:09

  7. Simon Marshall

    Thank you for this first class article, Mr Heritage. You ask many of the relevant and searching questions that HBC seem intent on not answering.
    The volte face from refusal to consent is an all too depressing act of planning permission gymnastics.
    Anyone buying into the outrageous justification that the “The design (of the Bunker) is not considered to be overbearing…..the contemporary building with rendered walls and bi-fold doors would be in keeping with the character and appearance of the surrounding area.” would also doubtless claim that a sumo wrestler “is of a suitably lithe and supple build that makes them a perfect choice to dance the lead role in the Sugar Plum Fairy!”
    The overreaching question is why do HBC concede to a developer’s requests so meekly? They appear to be running scared. Of what exactly one might ask?
    SEG has indeed acted in the best of faith and no little dignity over the past two years or more while fighting the honorable fight to protect one of the most stunningly beautiful areas in the whole of Great Britain, This struggle must seem a lonely one at times. I wonder, are there other SEG equivalents elsewhere battling equally insouciant councils seemingly intent on letting developers violate our land? If there are parallel campaigns, might it not be tome to join forces?

    Comment by Simon Marshall — Wednesday, Aug 10, 2016 @ 22:08

  8. Heritage

    As the author of this article I have to say I am not too pleased in making a comment but in respect of Jeffrey Biggs two swipes at me I feel compelled to do so.
    Firstly Mr Biggs, You need to read all the pages of both planning reports before suggesting I have go my facts incorrect. Due to their being ten pages, I could hardly be expected to quote or go over the bulk of these reports. In the limited words available, my only option was to pull some of the most salient points. Perhaps if you would care to read all the pages of those reports you might get a far improved comprehension of why I and so many others are not pleased about the protocols and execution of the second application.

    Secondly given what appears to be a limited knowledge of the history and your comments, I really seem to think you must be pals with the owners of the site or with someone in the planning department.

    Yes there was a bungalow already there but the Bunker is definitely not in the “foot print” of the original building. If you have never seen the old bungalow, I suggest you go through the planning files where you can find images of it. You will then see the bunker is a totally different and larger imposing structure.

    I note you say “differences of opinion between officers are common.” I beg to differ here Mr Biggs. Their role as a planning officer is to be “Objective” not “Subjective.” Therefore I cannot possibly agree with you on your remark. It doesn’t matter who was handling this application there should never have been a 180 degree turnaround from a detailed report making it more than clear how the Bunker was not at all suitable for this location.

    And pray do tell us all what you planning qualifications are please as you are telling me and others we need to learn more about the planning process

    Comment by Heritage — Wednesday, Aug 10, 2016 @ 13:33

  9. barney

    Sad to see that this online newspaper has a self appointed moderator – one complaint and whoops! comments removed. I strongly object to Mr. Biggs unacceptable comments about the SEG campaign group – he has insulted a large group of residents who worked tirelessly to protect OUR Country Park in the absence of the Council who are custodians of this exceptional site. Shame on you Mr. Biggs.

    Comment by barney — Wednesday, Aug 10, 2016 @ 10:08

  10. barney

    If anyone needs to be embarrassed it is Mr. Jeffrey Biggs who clearly has not a clue about the circumstances surrounding the Rocklands caravan park issues.

    I suggest he takes time to read Ms. Lynne Okine’s resume of the FACTS and then apologise to those who have endeavoured to protect OUR Country Park from further unauthorised damage.

    Comment by barney — Wednesday, Aug 10, 2016 @ 09:57

  11. Lynne Okines

    I do not think that we (campaigners) ever disputed that fact that there was already a holiday let building on the site; the original building was a wooden building with later brick additions, which were added in the late 1990s without the required planning permission. What we are disputing is the fact that what was subsequently built was not to the approved plans, and was in breach of planning conditions. The Council declared the building without planning permission as it was outside of the approved plans, and in its current form did not comply with the LDP. Applications to regularise the building were refused twice by our planning committee, once as an ‘amendment’ to the approved plans and once as ‘full planning permission’ – although the amended application was recommended by the case officer for approval, the officer assigned to second application recommended refusal, which was then endorsed by committee members. An ‘Enforcement Notice’ was served on the building that required its entire removal and that the land be restored to what it was before the building was constructed.

    Yes, there are doubts about the way in which the two applications, for the same proposal were handled – this was investigated by an external consultant who agreed that there were certain areas in the handling of the applications that were sadly lacking in procedure and process; her recommendations on improving the planning system were brought forward and endorsed by Cabinet on 1 December 2014.

    The replacement building was said to be within the footprint of the existing building, only smaller and would be completely hidden by the dense vegetation and the topography that surrounded the land. The applicants provided photographs that showed that the building would be invisible from prominent views. The 471 refusal was made for the right reasons as the building did not conform to the Local Development Plan and other material considerations. The subsequent planning application did not cover all of the reasons for the previous approval as it was passed before the necessary evidence was provided.

    Perhaps if the developers had built the building to the approved plans then the dense vegetation and tree screening would not have needed to have been removed, and we would not now be faced with such a prominent eye sore from views across the Country Park. The Planning Inspector criticised the Council for not imposing planning conditions to protect the existing tree cover during construction.

    The development was started before the Conditions that were ‘Pursuant to Detail’ were discharged and what was built was taller, bigger, realigned and closer to the existing building with at least 20 other substantial changes to the plans that were made without prior permission – this is what we have disputed and the reason why we have campaigned against this, and other unauthorised development within the caravan park.

    The Planning Inspector did not approve the building in its current form, as he required modifications to the building that would make it more acceptable in planning terms. The height of the building; the reduction of the balconies and increased tree screening are required to make the building more acceptable.

    I do not think that campaigners should be embarrassed for their part in ensuring that this building, and other unauthorised development within the caravan park are regularised and given the necessary planning permission, and if we should be embarrassed then so should the planning committee, local councillors and our local MP who have all supported our campaign.

    It has to be understood that the Council were not in support of the building as it stood; Council officers recommended refusal of the building in its current form, and because of that refusal subsequently took enforcement action against the building. Council employees, a Planning Consultant employed by the Council and the Council’s barrister all spoke against the building at the recent appeal hearing.

    It was not known until after the amended planning application was refused what the true dimensions of the building were, even the Head of Planning thought that the building was 5 cm taller than the approved plans, when subsequent investigations by external professionals proved that it was over two feet taller. The Campaign Group was praised by prominent members of the Council for bringing the discrepancies to the attention of the Council – so NO; we should not be embarrassed or attacked for not being profession planners!

    Excellent Article Mr Heritage.

    Comment by Lynne Okines — Wednesday, Aug 10, 2016 @ 09:18

  12. barney

    Excellent article – it is patently clear that our planning department has no intention of righting the many wrongs which have occurred within the planning processes in this town. Why is this council so keen to protect the developer? I thought they were there to protect the town and the residents. Where are our elected councillors? But here we go – shutters pulled down – doors closed – don’t ask questions or you will be labelled a vexatious complainer – just go away and don’t bother us. This has to stop. All the errors and costs related to the planning issues here come out of our pockets. Not good enough. Never has there a more serious need for the Hastings planning department to be investigated via an independent enquiry.

    There is another serious issue looming on the horizon at this very moment. How many residents have witnessed the very recent destruction of the large vacant site up at West Hill Road? A site which has lain undeveloped for 30 odd years and is listed as a special site and a Local Nature Reserve with protected wildlife and flora in situ. Also we understand, situated in the Grosvenor conservation area.

    HBC not bothered – the consent to develop this site was given in 1989 so that’s it folk – can’t stop them!! REALLY – is that so? It’s OK to use a decades old application and ignore planning legislation is it? Any works which are carried out on a site MUST conform to Planning Legislation which includes the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – it is an offence to knowingly kill or harm protected wildlife and there is now no evidence of any wildlife or rare flora remaining on this site. No evidence either of any of the required mitigation procedures. Too bad says the council – the 1989 application is valid. What nonsense – developers have to abide by planning legislation no matter what.

    Concerned residents need to take a trip up to the West Hill Road site which is near the Watling Tyre depot and see for themselves what has happened. It is shocking.

    Comment by barney — Tuesday, Aug 9, 2016 @ 17:57

  13. Jeffrey Biggs

    In response to Chris Hurrell’s comment, planning officers can obviously change their view in response to amendments to proposals. Differences of opinion between officers are also common. Most planning applications get approved and even more so under the targets set by the current government. There is nothing dodgy at all about the Rocklands site because it was a replacement building on a previously developed site. Even a planning inspector ultimately endorsed the principle of development.

    You could of course try complaining to your local conservative MP about the situation, but these are the people that have just passed legislation that will allow developers to simply appoint their own ‘consultants’ to process their planning applications for them, bypassing the local authority completely. You may come to miss the work of the local authority officers.

    Comment by Jeffrey Biggs — Tuesday, Aug 9, 2016 @ 16:19

  14. Jeffrey Biggs

    Reading through this I do not see any mysterious circumstances here at all. Application 1 was refused for a number of reasons. The officers met the developers and discussed the reasons for refusal and how they could be overcome. The correspondence was logged and filed and has all been disclosed under FOI rules. Application 2 came forward having addressed the reasons for refusal and was then approved. Planning officers take decisions like this under delegated authority all the time. As a resident of Hastings and user of the Country Park I quite agree that the building is less than perfect and the situation with the Rocklands Holiday Park is regrettable, but there are a limited amount of issues that can be taken in to account in a planning decision. There was as I understand it a building that was already there in the footprint of the new build which would make the provision of a replacement building at this location difficult to resist.

    The decision by the planning inspector vindicates the position taken all along by the officers involved and is an embarassment for the campaigners. You need to stop the slanderous allegations against the officers of Hastings Council (including insinuations of corruption) and learn more about the planning system and how it works before embarking on these campaigns.

    Comment by Jeffrey Biggs — Tuesday, Aug 9, 2016 @ 16:04

  15. chris hurrell

    Excellent article Richard.

    This information was presented to Mrs Bahcheli author of the “independent”
    report commissioned by HBC back in July 2014.

    Unfortunately this was never investigated and the Bahcheli report failed to
    address any of the issues covered in your article.

    The Bahcheli report never explains why near identical applications were
    treated so differently – the only difference between them was a Heritage
    Report submitted with the approved application. The author of the Heritage
    Report mistakenly believed that the building would be fully screened. Sadly
    all screening was removed (against planning conditions) prior to
    construction stating. Many consultees such as the AONB may have been
    influenced by this report which understated the visual impact and size of
    the building.

    The Bahcheli report ignored the mutually contradictory dimensions of the
    building supplied by the applicants, mentioned in the heritage report and in
    the HBC Officers report to the planning committee. It was claimed that the
    building is within the footprint of the old bungalow yet the plans show the
    two storey bunker to be some 42% larger in ground area and some 165% larger
    in volume than the single storey bungalow it replaced. The large obtrusive
    balconies also make the building far more intrusive The applicants agent
    claimed that the prominent hill top position of the building will make it
    less visible and that it will be fully screened. The screening was all
    removed prior to construction commencing. The building as actually built was
    even larger than the approved plans.

    Mr Crawford’s incorrect measurements of the building reported to the
    planning committee are also ignored. Mr Crawford stated that the building
    was a mere 2 inches higher than the approved plans. The independent Standen
    report commissioned by HBC confirmed the difference to be 60cm/ two feet.

    None of these omissions in the report surprise me as I am of the opinion
    that its objectives were to obfuscate, justify the actions of the planning
    department and to pave the way for the bunker to be built.

    The Bahcheli report led to a Planning Improvement Plan being approved by
    Cabinet. At the time of the Cabinet meeting Jeremy Birch and other
    councillors accepted that some errors had been made and welcomed SEGs
    involvement in exposing them. Since then HBC have failed to implement any of
    the improvement plan.

    Since Cllr Chowney became leader the planning improvement plan and all
    Rocklands issues have been forgotten and dropped. No changes have been made
    and business continues as normal down at Aquilla House.

    I fully agree that an independent enquiry into our planning department is
    urgently required.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Tuesday, Aug 9, 2016 @ 13:27

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