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The so-called Bunker at Rocklands caravan park.

The so-called Bunker at Rocklands caravan park.

Solar panel games at Rocklands

Hastings Country Park and its environs are still the subject of contentious planning matters. What are the lessons supposedly learned? Now there’s another retrospective application. The débâcle goes on — as you can find out next Sunday afternoon (15 November). Bernard McGinley reports.

Hastings Country Park continues to provoke unease across the borough.  The one-time bucolic showpiece now represents something troubling — perhaps selfishness, attention deficit disorder, incompetence, indifference or worse.  The notorious Bunker remains an unresolved case (and from some perspectives, the planning permission for the Bunker is theoretically still extant).  Cases such as the digging up of the Firehills, and the visitors’ centre at Fairlight (planning ref HS/FA//14/01033) also illustrated the threats to the unspoilt Country Park.  Warren Cottage was sold off and expanded (HS/FA/14/00893): the tree screening mentioned in the planning committee report’s conclusion as a condition of planning permission (and decided by the committee) is not quite there in the actual condition (3), ‘imposed in the interests of visual amenity’. Oops.

Now an array of solar panels threaten at the edge of the Country Park, at Rocklands Caravan Park. This is where the Bunker still looks out malevolently over the English Channel, beside the landslides that have closed the public path at that part of the Country Park.

The sea view from close to Rocklands.

The sea view from close to Rocklands.

The saga of the Bunker remains unresolved, and led to last year’s Bahcheli Report into the administration of the Rocklands case by the planning department of Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC). This in turn led to some detailed commentaries on the Bahcheli Report (as also here). (There was also an addendum Bahcheli Report, on the careless history of caravan licensing at Rocklands.)

Mistakes have been made but lessons have been learnt, the council suggests. But have they? The same caravan park is now making a retrospective application for solar panel planning permission, again. (The planning ref is HS/FA/15/00528. A previous case in the summer – HS/FA/15/00525 – was paused, then superseded, then disappeared from the records.)

This new application is for ‘retention’ (in the jargon) for solar panels overlooking the Country Park. The panels are already there ‘for an indefinite period’ (and have been since 2012), but the planning permission is not. In 2014, a planning contravention notice was served (HBC Cabinet paper of 1 December, Agenda Item 5, para 26).

Householder application? Later withdrawn.

Householder application? Later withdrawn.

Adding insult to injury, the present application has been presented as a ‘householder application’, as if the planners can’t tell – or don’t mind – that the caravan park is clearly a thoroughly commercial business.

This could be grounds for invalidity — but this has not happened. The ‘householder’ pretence has been abandoned however and the matter is to be readvertised.

Concerns are many — such as that some of the panels and cabling are on a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM), an Iron Age hill fort from the 1st century BCE.  However, Scheduled Monument Consent was not obtained — a clear breach of the Ancient Monuments and Archæological Areas Act 1979. Historic England (formerly English Heritage) have objected. This may be crucial to the outcome of this case.

CP pic3The solar panels breach several policies from the Local Plan (adopted 2014) such as EN7 (Conservation and Enhancement of Landscape) and FA5 (Strategic Policy for Eastern Area). They conflict too with AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) advice and other official guidance.

The application papers are misleading in various ways (such as understating the size of the panels), and the planning department have failed to follow proper procedures — such as the council’s Statement of Community Involvement (2011). Over 400 people objected to application HS/FA/14/1036, whose definition had two parts:

Retention of holiday let building  . . .  and

Relocation of solar panels

These objectors however were not then notified of this later application, despite council assurances that scrutiny would be improved and that objectors would be kept fully informed of all future developments relating to the caravan park.

In further procedural corner-cutting, the council’s planning department also failed to notify neighbouring properties correctly, or at all. The neighbour notification list is blank — which for the Bunker and other applications it was not.

Additionally the setting of an AONB is affected, for which remedy exists under Sections 84 and 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Similarly the setting of the Old Town Conservation Area (which extends to Rocklands) is a consideration.

The Country Park’s status as a Nature Reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is being quietly ignored. While Rocklands as a business is entitled to seek commercial advantage through (for instance) expansion, that should be within the constraints of the planning system — not through the persistent disregard of it. Much worse is the impression given that the planning department is inconsistent and lax, and not applying the system in a fair and even-handed manner. No sooner does one controversy die down than another springs up. Cumulatively this looks unimpressive. Recorded public opinion is intense and extensive about what is being allowed to happen to Hastings and St Leonards.  Meanwhile an HBC report (para 30) records dully, ‘The need for staff training and improved oversight of response is identified as a need arising . . . ’.

The campaign to protect the Country Park goes on. The Friends of the Country Park are among those who support it. Many objections have already been made. A public meeting at 3 o’clock next Sunday (15 November) at the White Rock Hotel will discuss this state of afffairs. The Save Ecclesbourne Glen group will discuss with those present the current situation and possible ways forward. Council participation is expected.

Opinions on the application (ref HS/FA/15/00528) can be emailed to the council until 4 December at dcenquiries@hastings.gov.uk or sent to HBC at Aquila House, Breeds Place, Hastings TN34 3UY.

It is possible that the planning committee will be swayed by the green, ‘cuddly’, renewable-energy argument, and approve the application — but there are many reasons, policy and administrative, why they should not. The Country Park is an economic asset for the borough as well as an aesthetic and health-giving one, highly sensitive and deserving of special protection (as through the High Weald AONB Management Plan 2014-2019). There may be other sites at the back of the caravan park where the thirteen panels could go, unseen from the Country Park.

A retrospective application for such an important site is seen by many as insulting, as an incitement to scofflaws. Residents continue to wonder why the caravan park should be indulged any further, when the benefit of any procedural doubt was long ago forfeited through unauthorised works and the Bunker. They also wonder when the council and its planning department will seek to defend Hastings, to protect and enhance what we still have, instead of doing the opposite. The formal explanation of course is that each case is decided impartially on its own merits. Case closed.

 

All photos by Bernard McGinley.

Posted 21:29 Wednesday, Nov 11, 2015 In: Home Ground

4 Comments

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  1. Chris Hurrell

    An update on the solar panels.

    Application HS/FA/15/00528 for the solar panels was refused permission on the 11/12/2015.

    An enforcement notice EN/16/00002 was issued on the 28/01/2016 and the panels were removed by Rocklands.

    Since then solar panels have been reinstalled in the same area!

    Save Ecclesbourne Glen wrote to HBC stating that Rocklands were in breach of the enforcement notice.

    HBC claimed variously that the solar panels were a “temporary structure” or “stored temporarily” and could remain until the results of the Rocklands appeal were known.

    The leader of the council explained the HBC position “Rocklands had a visit from the enforcement team – the panels are a ‘temporary structure, the owners have said, pending the outcome of the planning appeal for the house. If they win, they’ll install the panels on the roof of the house, which they would have permission to do. If they don’t, then as a ‘temporary structure’ they could leave them there for 3-6 months I’m told, but I’m guessing that if they do lose, there will be whole range of enforcement actions necessary to remove the entire house, so the panels would probably go too.”

    He also said ” However, the inspector can apparently decide to do whatever they like really – he or she could overturn the council’s decision on the planning application, and could allow the planning application with the solar panels on the roof. The appeal against the EN included within its package a plan with the panels shown on the roof. If the applicant is successful in his appeal against the EN, it is possible that the Inspector could specifically allow the solar panels on the roof. So the Guilliards can legitimately say that the outcome of the enforcement appeal may allow them to put the solar panels on the roof. ”

    The appeal decision has now been made. The Planning Inspector has allowed Rocklands to keep the existing building according to the plans approved by the appeal.

    The solar panels are completely unauthorised and action should now be taken to have them removed. SEG have written to HBC planning enforcement requesting action on the following grounds:

    1. The appeal has not granted permission for solar panels on the roof of the building. They are not on the plans approved by the appeal.

    2. The solar panels cannot be considered a temporary structure. They are in use and are wired up to the electricity supply.

    3. The solar panels cannot be considered as temporary storage. They are in use and are wired up to the electricity supply.

    4. The panels are in breach of an enforcement notice and this matter can now be taken to the magistrates court.

    We can only hope that HBC take enforcement action and don’t come up with yet more excuses for allowing the solar panels to remain in this sensitive site.

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Monday, Jun 20, 2016 @ 18:04

  2. Richard Heritage

    Excellent article Bernard!

    You have encapsulated this absurd scenario very well. As one reads through the events reported. You can see the Planning Department have not really taken heed of the catastrophic error made in the first place by Ray Crawford and his benevolent decision to give Rocklands permission to build the “Bunker.”
    I see from the image on the notice stating it is a “householder application, his undying support for these applicants had still remained despite the controversy with this entire site. His last favour before he “retired” as HBC say. Or did he walk before being pushed?
    An issue I have is if Historic England (in their report on this application)state the location of these panels have violated the Ancient Monument & Archaeological Act, why has this planning department even allowed this application. I just cannot believe what the owners of this site have got away with over the years.

    Comment by Richard Heritage — Friday, Nov 13, 2015 @ 10:36

  3. Michael Madden

    Very good article Bernard,

    What this also shows is that this situation in Hastings is reflective of a worrying national trend – that planning depts are now unaccountable bodies sitting within the Councils but not actually under their regulatory control.

    And what this indicates is that in Britain generally, Democracy has become an illusion. Architecture, as we have seen here in Hastings, has become a political issue because HM Government are waiving even the slimmest of rules so that almost anything can be built and the local council planning departments will rubber stamp it – even when found out, they say they have learned from their mistakes, but as you point out, they obviously haven’t, because they repeat them.

    The bunker and the unregulated expansion at Rocklands (that we all believe helped to cause the landslip – even Coffey Geotechnical Ltd) is therefore symbolic of a trend which we must all try to resist, in which a wealthy minority generally have their way at the expense of an increasingly powerless majority – all legitimised by a political elite who will enable them no matter whether anyone objects or not.

    Well done and see you on Sunday. By the way, it is also indicative that none of the Labour councillors invited to the White Rock have taken up the offer.

    Best wishes,

    Michael

    Comment by Michael Madden — Friday, Nov 13, 2015 @ 09:41

  4. chris hurrell

    Good article Bernard.

    The photo of the Rocklands sign on Rocklands Lane made me smile. A small thing but very symbolic of the endemic planning failures at Rocklands. In the great tradition of Rocklands this sign was also installed without proper planning permission. Installation of advertisments without planning permission is a criminal offence. The matter was reported to Ray Crawford Head of Planning who in the fine tradition of his department ignored all my carefully prepared evidence and declared that “if Rocklands had applied permission would have been granted.” Case closed , no further action was taken.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Thursday, Nov 12, 2015 @ 19:54

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