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Old visitors’ centre

Inferior version of Visitor Centre approved for Hastings Country Park

It took 11 minutes for Hastings Borough Council to decide that its application for a Visitor Centre was entirely acceptable. Bernard McGinley finds that you don’t need a sewage engineer to know which way the wind blows.

At the Planning Committee meeting on Wednesday 6 March, the Committee rapidly found that its application was deserving of approval, no questions asked.

The case (planning ref HS/FA/17/01018) was discussed in HOT earlier in: A room with a view to lowering standards.  The innovative or incoherent approach taken in the Visitor Centre case remains a cause of wonder, on what exactly is a Minor Material Amendment (MMA) – and what is a Non-Material Amendment (NMA)?

In the briefing by the planning services manager, it was explained that the site’s septic tank is not a septic tank but a ‘subterranean packaged sewage treatment plant’. The technical drawing says ‘septic tank’, as do related documents. It was also emphasised in passing that the planning permission for the main permission, HS/FA/14/01033, was live, though actually it had expired the previous day.

The objections of the High Weald AONB Unit of February 2018 (made by a qualified planner) went unmentioned:

Whilst this application is advertised as being a variation of a condition, it is clearly a significant change in the design and specification of the proposed Visitor Centre. It is for Hastings Borough Council to satisfy itself that this type of application is legally appropriate for the changes proposed. However, I am concerned that one practical implication of the process chosen is that there is no documentation with the application which explains the proposed changes or their rationale. If dealt with as a fresh full planning application it would have been accompanied by a Design and Access Statement, Planning Statement and Landscape Assessment which would have set out the justification for the proposed design and how this conserves and enhances the High Weald AONB.

In the absence of such information it is difficult to see how Hastings Borough Council can meet its responsibilities in respect of AONBs. Section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 requires local authorities to have regard to ‘the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of AONBs’ in making decisions that affect the designated area.  The National Planning Policy Framework paragraph 115 requires great weight to be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage are important considerations in all these areas.

In response to the briefing the Council members said nothing. There were no questions, not even about design changes or procedural problems so often discussed in the case files. The Chair thought it was “quite exciting really”.

The decision was unanimous. One Councillor was clear, and while seconding the motion to approve the application, took the opportunity to comment:  

I’m getting sick and tired in objections of people saying that things aren’t minor amendments when they clearly are.  These are minor amendments: same footprint, same site, same look of the building really, apart from the bits on top. So please, if you’re going to object to a planning application, at least make it factual rather than making stuff up.

Site for new visitors’ centre Photo Bernard McGinley

Clear and factual

Trying to be clear and factual leads to other relevant details. The Planning Officers’ Society has guidance about Minor Material Amendments. Criteria include whether it is a a very small change proposed – in this case, no – and if it does not vary significantly from what was described on the planning permission  – it does – or if it does not conflict with any conditions on the permission – again, it does.

A separate list of the types of  material changes for which a fresh application would be expected also applies well to the Visitor Centre application:  various changes including changes that would affect objections to the original proposal.

HBC has been this way before. In December 2014, in the wake of the planning cock-ups that caused the ‘Bunker’ in the Country Park (and the ensuing outcry), HBC Cabinet agreed unanimously

  1. The council should adopt new guidelines on what constitutes a minor amendment (section 73a) and what constitutes a full application (section 91).

The reforms were known as the Planning Improvement Implementation Plan (PIIP), and the Council is unable to explain their status, claiming that they were/ are informal guidelines.    

No Exit Photo Bernard McGinley

No Exit Photo Bernard McGinley

Shapeshifting in Hastings

Is it a Minor Material Amendment because of the ‘same look of the building really, apart from the bits on top’?  No: many details were changed, some suppressed or euphemised, such as  windows, height, design, materials, lighting and landscaping, including the famous upstairs terrasse, which is no more proposed.

A scrutiny of the technical drawings of the four Visitor Centre cases (HS/CD/17/01101 and HS/NM/18/00059 being the others) is surprisingly instructive in the matter of ’making stuff up’.  Although the site of the Visitor Centre has not changed, its boundaries have.

The changes make it possible to accommodate the surface water drainage system, the part of the development that was supposedly a ‘Non-Material Amendment’. The Location Plan for HS/FA/14/01033 and HS/NM/18/00059 shows the approved redline area  but the new drainage plan submitted with HS/CD/17/01101 (in Proposed Plans) shows a bridge, ditch, swale and scrapes outside of the approved redline area.

(Similarly, the officers’ report for HS/NM/18/00059 (it was a delegated decision) stated that the proposal ‘would not alter the development as previously approved’.  Unfortunately it did, and the new plans submitted in respect of foul and surface water drainage also conflicted with the approved plans, which show a different redline area and a foul disposal connection to the main sewer.)  

Like the bits on top, the bits underground at the proposed Visitor Centre have been comprehensively changed, by a procedural sleight of hand, to go round planning permission HS/FA/14/01033.  This application sought to connect to nearby existing main drains to service the new building’s foul and waste water. That now won’t happen, and there hasn’t been the bother of a fresh application or consultation, or much scrutiny or publicity.

Natural England is a statutory consultee for planning applications potentially affecting Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), which the Country Park has. On 1 March they asked to be consulted again and apparently haven’t been.

None of this is good enough for Hastings.

Posted 13:15 Monday, Mar 12, 2018 In: Home Ground

7 Comments


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  1. Bolshie

    Excellent observation there Bernard Fox in general but as for the last part of your comment, I have to say I doubt that very much. So far councillors and, I don’t mean officers as they are another breed in that council, have very, very rarely been held to account.

    Yes the planning department is something else. What you might not know is if you do question them you will find yourself on their “Vexatious List.” Yes they have a black list of us who might question anything. I am down on the list over an FOI request and questioning why council (their own ) planning application forms are incorrectly completed. I have to pay £120 to find out why. That is the standard charge for planning inquires and questions. Not bad for a “Socialist” run council is it.
    And as Mrs Doubtfire points out how they chuck endless sums on money at issues such as Rocklands / Country Park. Now over £100,000 of tax payers money spent on reports, surveys, legal fees and consultants. But they can’t keep the public toilets open

    Comment by Bolshie — Sunday, Mar 18, 2018 @ 16:33

  2. Ms.Doubtfire

    Mr. Bernard Fox reckons these councillors will be held to account. The big question is how and when. To date, every time any resident or group has endeavoured to bring these feckless people to account they simply engage their lawyers and chuck endless money (our money) to defend their outrageous decisions.
    Our elected councillors were not elected to become ‘yes men’ to the planning department officers. We expected they would stand up and protect this wonderful town. Remember this when you cast your vote in May.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Wednesday, Mar 14, 2018 @ 13:28

  3. Bernard fox

    Wholeheartedly agree with Andy Ammo’s comments. The planning department is run like a cabal of plutocrats. It appears they become petulant when any individuals not part of the inner circle question their policy decisions. There are numerous of these which spring to mind relating to ongoing damage to our built heritage where architectural detail is being lost in the town to incompetent decisions by planning.The most recent of these being to the replacement to a top bays windows on a building within a run of shops along from the white rock. The building has bow fronted bays and an original balcony dating back to the mid 19th century and the council has allowed UPVC. Utterly shameful. They had the power to demand that bow fronted timber sashes be re-instated as existing but failed to exhibit any aesthetic or practical understanding. I have worked on historic buildings for the last 35 years so I have some experience.As to the country park visitor centre. I am not in the least surprised. These councillors will be held to account.

    Comment by Bernard fox — Wednesday, Mar 14, 2018 @ 11:12

  4. Christopher Hurrell

    Planning slipped this through without proper consultation. No statutory bodies were consulted.

    The change from connection to sewers was not mentioned until the last moment. The original application was changed to connect to sewers following objections from Natural England. The tank was reintroduced at the last minute without reconsultation. NE asked to be consulted but were ignored.

    It would have been preferable if specialists had been consulted on the environmental impact of the tank – instead the planning committee decided in 11 minutes without any discussion or proper advice. They were so thorough that nobody noticed that the application plans contradict themselves including both foul connections to sewers and septic tank.

    The high weald aonb had serious concerns about misuse of process and the volume of changes being considered as a “minor amendment”.

    The planning committee ignored all concerns and rubber stamped the application. Cllr Wincott took the opportunity to criticise objectors but did not discuss a single issue.

    A disgraceful days work by an arrogant and unaccountable planning department and supine complacent councillors.

    No lessons learnt from the planning disaster at Rocklands which has laid waste to much of Ecclesbourne Glen. Hastings gets what it deserves.

    Comment by Christopher Hurrell — Wednesday, Mar 14, 2018 @ 07:12

  5. Oli Smith

    I have variously over time written to Simon Hubbard (director HBC ) and Catherine Berkshire Jones (chief legal officer) and askedin as many ways as I can think of “Does HBC consider it their moral and legal duty to observe the guidelines and statutes regarding the functions that they are legally obliged to carry out. I am amazed at there ability to never give an honest simple answer. Never.

    Comment by Oli Smith — Tuesday, Mar 13, 2018 @ 19:26

  6. Andy Ammo

    This stinks — not just the decision but the administration of it. (For instance, the application form for the ‘Non-Material Amendment’ (ref HS/NM/18/00059) had barefaced porkies from the applicant, the Council). HBC‘s abuse of process is a running sore. Why do elected members sit at Committee like dummies? Bring back representative democracy.

    Comment by Andy Ammo — Tuesday, Mar 13, 2018 @ 18:41

  7. Eye on the ball

    I cant say that I understand all the jargon in these planning applications but it does sound like the council are making significant changes without following the correct procedures. If this will result in damage to the Country Park in any way are we able to take the case to Natural England? Is there a procedure for this? Will HOT do this? We do need some way to take action as HBC does not like to consult and seems to be a law unto itself.

    Comment by Eye on the ball — Monday, Mar 12, 2018 @ 16:46

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