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The Bunker – clearly visible from a distance.

Oversize Bunker cries out for HBC action

Rocklands Caravan Park and controversy seem to be inseparable bedfellows. Can Rocklands ever be a good neighbour to Hastings Country Park? It’s not impossible. But there’s no sign of it yet, as Bernard McGinley (a Friend of the Country Park) finds as he looks into the latest breaches of planning permission, and calls for firm action by the council.

The picture above shows the Rocklands holiday-let building, popularly known as the Bunker, from the East Hill of the Old Town. Head towards Fairlight from the East Hill Lift and all too rapidly it’s noticeable, often glinting in the sunshine, like an alien spaceship in Hastings Country Park. Many visitors ask ‘How did that happen?’  It’s a good question.  

Breaches

The Bunker, dominating Rocklands Caravan Park and blighting the adjoining Country Park, continues to be ‘in breach’; but instead of breaching the original planning permission, it is now in multiple breach of the Planning Inspector’s careful decision when hearing the Rocklands owners’ appeal in 2016. He gave approval, for reasons including that the loss of visual bulk of the balconies and canopies proposed by the owners lessened the visual impact of the building. The owners have now increased the visual bulk of the balconies in defiance of this ruling.

The discrepancies between what was authorised in 2016 and what has been built are visible to the naked eye but require professional measurement and assessment:  the depth of the balcony as well as its width, fewer panels and more supports (stanchions), and an overlarge canopy, none of them in accord with the permission.

Moreover, a balcony extension on the East Hill side was explicitly found “unacceptable” by the inspector but one has been built. (See the pictures and drawings below.)

Given that repeated breaches have occurred before, some vigorous response is required or expected from Hastings Borough Council.   There are many tools, including an Enforcement Notice (EN), Breach of Condition Notice, Stop Notice, Planning Contravention Notice (PCN), or Discontinuance or Alteration Order under (Sections 172, 187A, 183, 171C and 102 respectively of) the Town & Country Planning Act 1990

Council reliance now on correspondence-seeking-clarification would not be satisfactory, because of Rocklands’ very poor record in compliance. An independent survey is needed to ascertain what bulk the Bunker now has and its exact variations from what it had permission for.

History in short

Eight years ago there was a wooden bungalow where Rocklands abuts Hastings Country Park, a small building well-screened by trees, and inoffensive.  Then Rocklands applied for a new ‘holiday let’ building (planning ref HS/FA/12/00471). When it was rejected they tried again, harder.  This was approved by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) under ‘delegated powers’ which did not involve an assessment by the Planning Committee, our elected representatives just a decision by planning officers. So Rocklands got planning permission (application HS/FA/12/00952). The decision and approval letter of 13 February 2013  noted carefully (and wrongly):

The reason for granting this permission is:

. . . There will be no material harm to the neighbourhood in general… 

However, what was built was strikingly different from what had been approved:  in height, massing, footprint, etc.  Having got permission for a design with cantilevered balconies, Rocklands added a further five columns.  The Bunker bulged by nearly a metre more than permitted south towards the Country Park. 

Following hundreds of objections about the monstrosity suddenly dominating the Country Park (HS/FA/14/01036 – refused by the Council), and other objections about the flagrant inaccuracies and deliberate misconstructions on site, there were several inquiries by the Council. In June 2014, the then Development Control Manager wrote that the new building was ‘within reasonable tolerances’.  Unfortunately the 2014 ‘Bahcheli Report’ [Procedural Review] (para 6.5.28) established that it was ‘beyond reasonable tolerances’. 

HOT reports on Rocklands’ self-inflicted planning problems have been many, including here, and this and this.

After the key damage was done (visually, environmentally and legally), the Council were not in support of the building as it stood.  Council officers recommended refusal of the building in its then form. Because of that refusal they then took enforcement action against the Bunker: in July 2014 the Council issued a PCN. In April 2015 they issued an EN (EN/15/00028).  Council employees, a planning consultant employed by the Council and (subsequently) a Council-engaged barrister all opposed the building.

The Council’s Enforcement Notice of April 2015 (following unanimous decisions by the Planning Committee and the senior officers) declared that the whole building was deemed unlawful and the owners were required to: 

(i) Demolish the building edged in blue on the attached plan in its entirety.  

Among the reasons given were

(v)  The building, by virtue of its height, form and colour, is highly visible within the Old Town Conservation Area and the setting of the Scheduled Ancient Monument, and is harmful to the setting of each of these designated heritage assets. The building therefore does not accord with [many policies, plans and strategies]. The conflict with the development plan and the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] is not outweighed by any other strategy.  

An inspector calls

Eventually the matter went to an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. Following hearings in April 2016, the Inspector made an Appeal Decision, 3029007. Amid much discussion of planning law and context he decided:

Formal Decision 

39.  I allow the appeals insofar as they relate to Scheme 3A and grant planning permission on the application deemed to have been made under s177(5) of the [1990 Town & Country Planning] Act as amended subject to the following conditions . . .

Rocklands were allowed to keep most of their overbuilt building — which was 600mm (nearly 2 feet) higher than its original permission, with 3-metres-wide balconies that were one metre (over 3 foot 3 inches) wider than allowed, that extended all the way round the East Hill side. The sea-facing side is also markedly different from what was approved.   

However, Scheme 3A (approved by the Inspector) involved a reduced balcony, in accordance with Drawing  11.396/14, ‘proposed scheme with reduced balcony’ which can be found among the appeal papers and in the documents for Enforcement case EN/15/00028 (‘Without planning permission the construction of a two storey building | Rocklands Private Caravan Park, Rocklands Lane, Hastings, TN35 5DY’). 

Drawing 11.396/14 is described as ‘SCHEME 3A’ (publication date:  8 June 2016). 

This is what the Inspector carefully decided in favour of. What was rebuilt however was different. The balcony (shown below) has been extended again.

The above drawing shows what was approved.

The reality is this:

The lefthand side of the balcony, a continuation (going left), is noticeably different from the planning permission.

A plan (overhead view) is shown below: 

Drawing 11.396/14: the Bunker plan detail also shows what was approved at the Appeal, not the unauthorised extension of the ‘reduced balcony’ as far as the kitchen window.

Non-compliance: material consideration

A breach that is the same as an earlier breach is a ‘material consideration’ in the objection, not just a detail on the fast track to retrospective approval.  

This building at present is multiply – flagrantly – in breach of its permitted specification and of its permission, part of a larger pattern of abuse of procedure by Rocklands. The planning breach is unquestionable, but some of its details require independent professional assessment. Will HBC address this flouting on such a sensitive site? 

It is not a trivial or technical breach; policies trashed, and the previous unauthorised balcony extension were among the reasons for Enforcement action, and a reason why the Planning Inspector ruled that the development ‘as built’ was not acceptable. It cannot be acceptable now. 

As recently as Monday 8 June, an HBC Cabinet paper stated its Enforcement Aims:

2. To ensure that the planning process is not undermined by unauthorised developments and changes of use whilst underpinning planning decisions and the policies of the Local Plan.

HOT asked Rocklands for a comment on their non-compliant balcony and building but they have not responded. HBC planning department have also hesitated for months, apparently unsure of how to proceed.  (A site visit is hardly necessary to know what the photographs show.)  Weeks ago the Council said that they had heard back from the owners who ‘intend to amend the balcony’.  (There is no known explanation of how the situation arose. No details of proposed works. No statement concerning the extent of non-compliance.  No timeframe.  No news of apologies or polite regrets.)  

Despite requests, the Council have not yet stated how they intend to respond.

Independent remeasurement

Members of the Council have been asked to show their support for the Country Park by endorsing the need for an independent assessment and remeasurement of the Bunker. The Bahcheli Report of October 2014 on the original debacle – which drew on the report by Standen Associates Ltd, local chartered building surveyors, in association with M J Zara Associates of Lewes, and was later accepted by the Inspector and the main parties as accurate (Decision, par 9) – found multiple errors and discrepancies. A similar assessment is again needed, as a matter in the public interest. 

Segue

The campaign group Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG) continues on.  It began in November 2014, some time after landslips from Rocklands Caravan Park damaged the Country Park, and the Bunker erupted like a lumpen zombie mushroom. Council inaction about protecting the Country Park was causing concern. The Cabinet meeting of December 2014 (Agenda item 5) nevertheless acknowledged about the Bunker:   

17.  Concerns by SEG subsequently resulted in a measured survey being undertaken which confirmed the building did not conform to its existing consent.  It was 0.55m higher and had a greater footprint, a larger balcony and had been re-orientated on the site. It is fair to say that this survey would not have been undertaken without pressure from SEG.

SEG continues to campaign for the Country Park, expressing concerns about the threat to the pending England Coast Path from HBC ‘s new proposed bylaws as well as about the longstanding issues, such as screening, and weakening protections against development.

Déjà vu all over again

The Planning Inspector’s considered decision could have been the end of the ‘live’ Bunker controversy, but that cannot be, as it has been disregarded in practice by the caravan park owners.

The role of HBC planning department is not only to facilitate planning decisions but to uphold them too. Now the Council needs to be seen to stand up for careful decision-making and public confidence in the planning system. (Central government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF, para 58) advocates proportionate action: what should that be for persistent scofflaw offenders?).  They might also consider that the Inspector also found

Moreover, any permission arising from these appeals could require quite extensive planting, including semimature specimens if thought necessary by the Council, and much of this might fall within areas of woodland protected by the TPO [tree protection order]. 

and this too awaits Council attention.

Possible action

This news report is not about recriminations. There is a live problem to be addressed.  A retrospective ‘amendment’, in effect no-questions-asked, would not be suitable in these circumstances and material considerations.  (In Bunker case HS/FA/19/00172, the Council report was clear that ‘a variation of permission is not applicable’ because the permission from the Appeal had been implemented.  Perhaps a fresh application for the entire development is now required.) 

Different courses of action are possible, but a reliable statement of the facts and discrepancies is necessary first. If you think the Council should verify compliance with hard-won planning permission by an independent remeasurement of the Bunker building, let either or both of your ward councillors know. Elected representatives have that role, elected to represent us. 

The Bunker canopy, overprotruding, and in breach of the Inspector’s careful decision.

 

Posted 16:28 Wednesday, Jun 10, 2020 In: Home Ground

7 Comments

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  1. chris hurrell

    Great article covering a complex and ongoing issue.

    SEG are calling for an independent remeasurement of the building. We are concerned that there may be other breaches of the permission granted. Rocklands have a long track record of breaching Planning Permissions. The only way to know for sure that the building complies with the Planning Permission is to carry out an independent remeasurement as happened in 2014. This remeasurement revealed many breaches of the permission that Planning had failed to notice.

    The article quotes the agenda item from the Cabinet meeting of December 2014 which acknowledged the value of the independent remeasurement and SEG’s role in campaigning for it.

    At the Cabinet meeting Councillor Jeremy Birch leader of the Council admitted that: “The council was wrong in terms of what it believed, what it took on trust really- was the height and orientation of the building and the council was not open enough when people challenged that conclusion, when people challenged the council to say “No it’s higher, No it’s not as its says on the plans” the council was not ready enough to listen at the start and to take on board those considerations and to recheck. “

    At the Cabinet meeting Cllr John Hodges stated: “ Listening to them it does not come any surprise that the number of mistakes made over the caravan park that have come to light during this investigation. They go back many years they have not just happened. For that information we have the group dedicated to saving Ecclesbourne Glen to thank for pointing out these many shortcomings, they have done a really good analytical job.”

    Without independent verification that the building complies with its permission, any course of action taken by HBC will be compromised.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Tuesday, Jun 16, 2020 @ 15:28

  2. Gretel

    Excellent article Bernard, incredible detailed research setting the sorry scene of this sad & sorry tale from the Country Park: the glittering jewel in Hastings crown. It is like a tragic fairy tale with Hastings Council under a comatose spell for a hundred years dozing under a hedge of thorns whilst this abuse carries on right under their nose, or, a far worse a grimm modern reality tale of blind eye turning. I recall Private Eye featured this debacle back in 2014, I hope they are aware that this travesty continues: it’s as ripe as a red apple for a new feature. This is an opportunity for new council leader Kim to bravely wake HBC from deep slumber & quickly as this story is a grimm look for her new era of leadership. Bernard’s article hands her an opportunity to scatter breadcrumbs down a glittering new pathway of respect for the Country Park, will she seize this moment or slumber?

    Comment by Gretel — Friday, Jun 12, 2020 @ 22:13

  3. Bernard McGinley

    Bolshie refers to the unsuccessful application (HS/FA/12/00471) and the successful one (HS/FA/12/00952) as ‘virtually identical’. HBC didn’t agree. Their delegated report for the Bunker application (soon to be approved) stated:

    Description: This application follows refusal of HS/FA/12/00471 for the same proposal.

    Credit where it’s due.

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Thursday, Jun 11, 2020 @ 14:45

  4. Michael Madden

    I wasn’t intending to comment again, but have to say to Bea that your first paragraph is spot on. In fact John Hodges said as much to two SEG committee members before he died.

    But the next question then follows: Why don’t they just do their job properly -then they’d have no fear of any legal challenge? They knew they were culpable by neglect in this case because they failed to use their enforcement powers when they were needed, in relation to tree removals and to caravan spacing and numbers. So they know they would lose any legal case.

    So the inevitable happened – the landslip. But because they refused to accept their own failure, they would sooner become allies of such “abusive developers”, rather than do what they are paid for – support the interests of the people who pay their wages and expenses – i.e. local taxpayers.

    This is how they betray the people them. They are no better nor worse than Tories. So the best way to avoid this type of corruption is to have a far more balanced council, with all parties represented.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Thursday, Jun 11, 2020 @ 13:49

  5. Bolshie

    Another excellent and informative article by Bernard. And on the ball comments here. Yes Bea you have to wonder about Enforcement issues and Rocklands. There have been other issues there the council were not prepared to take them to task on from what I remember. To many sheds on wheels. The sheds on wheels were not correctly spaced for fire/safety. The concrete slab where some seven or so of what they call caravans on the southern side of the site was without, as far as I again remember, without planning permission – that’s the bit that is part of the Ecclesbourne collapse. I never hear of HBC taking them to task on these issues.
    As Michael mentions Cllr Hodges – yes he was the only one ever to stand up on this Rocklands issue. No other councillors, even from that Ward have said anything about it. Does the term “gagging order” come to mind?

    As for the Bunker I remember it getting refused by the past Ray Crawford, head of planning. However, he then advised them ( this was on file ) how they should remodel aspects of it. Some three months later another virtually identical application was filed just around Christmas time. This application was dealt with by one of Mr Crawford’s subordinates who was happy to give it a big YES.

    I think it would be be fair to say the entire issue with this building has been very murky.

    Comment by Bolshie — Thursday, Jun 11, 2020 @ 12:45

  6. Bea

    I haven’t followed this in detail but it looks to me as if HBC is scared of any enforcement action that might lead to a legal challenge from Rocklands that could be expensive to fight. If that is the real reason for their inaction then they should say so.
    It does raise questions about the financial priorities of this Council. They are throwing hundreds of thousands of pounds at HQ Theatres, and possibly given quiet guarantees of further subsidies if a new “leisure facility” is built (ie a new building for HQ). It really is time that councillors looked into ways to save money on subsidies for commercial organisations, so that they can keep funds for challenging abusive developers like Rocklands.

    Comment by Bea — Thursday, Jun 11, 2020 @ 11:13

  7. Michael Madden

    An excellent, detailed article. Necessarily long, in order to put this latest covert attempt to ignore planning permission into its historical context – i.e. whether Rocklands should have been allowed to erect this building at all.

    This is just the latest in a long list of blunders, and it shows that the council is either asleep or more keen on helping private developers than on their taxpayers’ enjoyment of the Country Park. Bernard’s attention to detail shows how the council would allow even more of this, if eagle-eyed observers like him were not around to remind them of their own rules.

    Back in July 2014, every coucillor voted for the bunker to be demolished. But the business appealed and won. The cry of “Tear it Down” was led by cllr John Hodges, who died soon after, and the Save Ecclesbourne Glen campaign lost its only genuine ally. He was and still is sadly missed.

    The nearby landslip was caused by the same expansionist tendencies in an adjacent area of the holiday park . The path that runs along the perimetre base is open, but cracking again (as it did in 2012/13, before a massive area calved off beneath it and a landslip covered the Saxon Shore Way path). With the inevitable rains that come every late winter nowadays, more slips may yet occur.

    At that time the geotechnical company (paid for by us taxpayers) who the council tasked with determining the causes of the landslip put it down to increased road building and terrassing in Rocklands. And despite the fact that Peter Chowney said in a June phone call to a SEG committe member that he believed the council could agree to channel the excess water run-off down into the stream, so as to help the landslip stabilise, he was then taken off the case.

    Ever since then the council has taken the stance of denial, and has tasked their chief legal officer with resisting scrutiny from publicly-minded taxpayers – even going so far as try and cast them as villains. And this is the same council which, until recently, said it adhered to the political creed: “for the Many, Not the Few.”

    Comment by Michael Madden — Thursday, Jun 11, 2020 @ 08:46

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