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Post landslip in the Rocklands area

Post landslip in the Rocklands area

Rocklands tree decision behind closed doors?

If the Aquila House planning officials get their way, the Rocklands ‘tree works’ planning application (HS/TP/16/00089) will be decided under delegated powers rather than go to the planning committee. Bernard McGinley asked why, but failed to get a satisfactory answer.

The application for ‘various tree works’ near Hastings Country Park was discussed here – apprehensively – a few weeks ago.  Just before the end of the consultation period, Hastings Borough Council (HBC) decided that the planning application could be dealt with under delegated powers. They could still change their minds, but unless they do, the decision will be taken by planning officials behind closed doors rather than in the open by the planning committee. (Strangely, ‘delegated powers’ and ‘Rocklands’ is what led to the toxic construction of the Bunker, still blighting views from near and far, an imbroglio that has yet to be resolved.)

The Bunker

The Bunker

Rocklands Caravan Park, a vigorously commercial business, wants to do tree-felling and other works, despite Tree Preservation Order (TPO) 286 of February 2015. HBC’s response has been more supine than robust or even-handed.

Explanations are hard to find for what is going on. Councillors have gone mute (with one exception), and officers are saying little. In this low profile, HBC members won’t comment to electors, and officers won’t comment to the media.

The exception is the chair of Planning’s explanation that:

“Such applications are delegated to the Head of Planning Services who can choose to pass them to the Planning Committee if they see fit. The Head of Planning Services has decided not to do this on this occasion and I fully support her decision. It is appropriate that applications proposing works to protected trees are decided by appropriately qualified and experienced arboriculturalists and not politicians with no such qualifications or experience.

“The reason many decisions are delegated to officers is so that the Council can be run efficiently and less bureaucratically.”

But the principle of local democracy constrained by expert advice is long established. Otherwise the decisions would belong to technocrats and commissars and there would be no need for elected representatives such as the chair of Planning or ward councillors.

Yet historically the principle of democratic decision-making is well established, including locally. Elected members of the Planning Committee have long represented the electorate, who lack the expertise available in Aquila House. On technical matters they can still be guided. (Councillors don’t need qualifications or experience, but judgement helps.)

The Planning Services manager had a different explanation for the proposal to use delegated powers. “We are simply following procedure. . . this matter will be delegated and there is no right or procedure under our constitution that would allow the consideration of a tree works application to be considered at committee.”

But this insistence is refuted by the numbers of exceptions there already are. It is easily done to send this case to Committee.

In addition, the Council’s constitution (section 8, part 3b, paragraph 44) gives an exemption to delegated powers if three or more objections are made to an application. This trees case has attracted more than 50 objections and a petition with 111 signatures. The Council is therefore in breach of its own constitution, but will not engage with such criticism.

The Bunker from the East Hill perspective

The Bunker from the East Hill perspective

The Bunker disfiguring the East Hill remains a monument to the use of delegated powers. Following uproar, hundreds of objections, and some embarrassing reports, reforms were announced in late 2014, proposed by the late Cllr Jeremy Birch, seconded by Cllr Peter Chowney. (See the Cabinet Report and Minutes of December 2014.) These are now being moved away from — even reneged on.

Shrugging is one possible response, but the future of the Country Park is at stake, with economic implications. Regarding the present tree works application, the borough tree specialist wrote of Rocklands, Location 14, “The group of willow are growing in an area of landslip” without commenting on treatment of the landslip, or the possibility of more of it. Tree felling affects drainage and makes likely further landslip at Rocklands and Ecclesbourne Glen. This is a poor standard of administration.

Many have pointed out the shortcomings of this application for “various tree works” — incomplete, vague, contradictory, out-of-date, and inaccurate. Processing of the case by HBC planners shows that it is sadly not the case that lessons have been learnt from that 2014 HBC Report, which stated:

“28. Trees have been removed from the site . . . officers failed to check the situation until pressurised from above and outside to do so. This has led to a spirit of distrust and subsequent complaints about lack of enforcement.”

Paragraph 43 of that 2014 report accepted the consultant’s recommendation 1:

“. . . Care should be taken that plans are accurate (as far as officers are able) and that the information on planning application forms matches that in the plans.

“Response 1
. . .
“ii. Applications will not be accepted where plans are not sufficiently accurate or don’t match the application.”

The Cabinet meeting minutes confirmed that:

“The consultant reports proposed a series of recommendations to address the areas of concern and ensure the council processed planning applications better and engaged with the public effectively.”

But quite a lot has changed since 2014, including the furtive abandonment of Hastings Town Hall. Despite the other recommendations and responses made, the impression persists of laxness (twinned with evasiveness) in the Council’s administration. Despite its many clear faults, this trees application (00089) was accepted unamended (and with scant consultation). Now it is lined up for a decision under delegated powers, avoiding public scrutiny.

HBC’s Planning Protocol (adopted December 2013) has the principle in Paragraph 2:

“Planning decisions should be made openly, impartially, with sound judgement and for justifiable reasons. The process should leave no grounds for suggesting that a decision has been partial, biased or not well-founded in any way.”

Unobjectionable or what? But around Aquila House, platitudes about transparency, accountability, fairness, and decisions openly arrived at, appear to be just so much airy persiflage.

Rocklands Holiday Home Park

Rocklands Holiday Home Park

If the use of delegated powers leads to an approval of the application, lots could happen at Rocklands quite quickly. The appeal on the Bunker will be heard by the Planning Inspector at 10am on Thursday 21 April, downstairs at White Rock Theatre.

The Council’s prolonged indulgence of Rocklands, its veiled support for the planning permission for the Bunker (HS/FA/12/00952), and reluctance to press for rescreening have all given rise to a great variety of concerned comment (such as this). In the turbulence of the Rocklands/Country Park saga, it would be wrong to suggest that Hastings Borough Council are metaphorically somehow selling off the family silver. Instead they’re giving it away.

(All photos: Bernard McGinley)

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Posted 12:10 Tuesday, Apr 5, 2016 In: Home Ground


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  1. Chris Hurrell

    The controversial tree works application has been passed by delegated powers without the involvement of the planning committee. Despite 50 plus objections and over 100 signatures this application has been decided behind closed doors by the very same officers who also allowed the bunker to be built.

    What chances that Rocklands will only carry out tree works as specified? They have NEVER followed any rules or conditions in the past and HBC have never bothered to control them. The documents and plans submitted make it virtually impossible to ensure that only authorised trees will be removed. T

    This approval gives carte blanche to Rocklands to do whatever they like. HBC still claims that no trees were removed in the past and wont do anything to ensure that these latest works are controlled. There will be no monitoring by HBC tree officer. Only one tree that is to be removed will be replaced. This will further reduce screening of the camp site from the Country Park. Rocklands have already destroyed the visual amenity of OUR Country Park and have now been granted a free pass to carry on with the removal of screening. No lessons learnt.The destruction of our Country park continues apace.

    Read more:

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Saturday, Jul 16, 2016 @ 10:34

  2. Patrick Glass

    Bernard’s clear, concise, and important article demonstrates that HBC are failing us all in their management of the Country Park. Hundreds have objected to what has been happening there. The landslip and erosion in Ecclesbourne Glen is dire – and requires immediate action. And why hasn’t the Bunker been demolished?

    HBC’s planning dept have been shown to be incompetent, and are not to be trusted. ‘Delegated powers’, in this case, is nonsense. Open consultation with the public is the only way to restore confidence. The Country Park is a Gem. And is not to be eroded, or simply given away, without our consent. Thank you, Bernard.

    Comment by Patrick Glass — Saturday, Apr 9, 2016 @ 11:26

  3. Richard Heritage

    An excellent and well informed article Bernard.

    When you have a situation such as this debacle where neither councillors or the council officers will utter a word about this application and the Bunker. You know they are having serious problems and they must be in a corner not really knowing how to get themselves out of this mess. A mess compounded even more by this new Development Manager who has a very strange interpretation of the council constitution regarding planning applications. As the old ad goes: – “Should have gone to Specsavers” perhaps.

    As far as the councillors, well while they will not admit it, I would think it is quite clear they have been given a “D notice” (gagging order) on this issue.

    As for myself I emailed the case officer Ms Roots o 23rd March asking her to explain this decision to delegate the application. Have I received a reply – well of course I have not. Par for the course when the council don’t want the public expressing their concerns.

    Comment by Richard Heritage — Saturday, Apr 9, 2016 @ 07:54

  4. Barney

    There are grounds aplenty for suggesting that everything surrounding this fiasco has NOT been impartial, open or decided with sound judgement. What can hapless residents do to right this wrong? Members refuse to engage in meaninful dialogue with their constituents, officers close their doors. This cannot be allowed to continue – we have to extract ourselves from this ever growing dictatorship.

    Comment by Barney — Wednesday, Apr 6, 2016 @ 09:24

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