Most Post readers will be familiar with the Neighbourhood Plan; no doubt some of you went to one of the public exhibitions, perhaps you assisted in its preparation or felt the need to comment on one aspect or another. You may also have attended the public hearing held on June 4th 2015 to hear objections to the plan and to enable it to be finalized.
The Plan took a team of volunteers over three years to put together and was duly approved by more than 80% of the 2,713 people who voted in the referendum. Accordingly in September 2015 it became the official Neighbourhood Plan for the parish of Petersfield. The idea of the people within a community deciding for themselves how their town was going to develop in the future was recognised as a good one and there were very few people who were against the concept. They may not have liked one aspect or another but they accepted it as a good compromise between the need for development and building and the needs of the community at large.
You probably imagined that once passed the Neighbourhood Plan would have some significance in legal terms but it has been very difficult to establish exactly what that is. Certainly neither the Ombudsman or our MP’s office were able to provide an answer and the Secretary of State did not reply to my enquiry. It is true that planning regulations require that the Neighbourhood Plan be taken into account but quite what that means is unclear and there seems to be no redress for a development that flagrantly transgresses the Neighbourhood Plan.
You probably also thought that it would be commercial developers and builders who would be most likely to ignore the Plan in order to improve the profitability of a new housing development. Alternatively a private individual simply looking after his own interests at the expense of the community. What you would not have expected is that the Council planners themselves would be the offenders by supporting a development which is clearly contrary to the Neighbourhood Plan. Still less would you have expected this to happen in the very centre of the town alongside a Conservation Area.
However that is exactly the situation we have now with the Petersfield Car Spa, which is best described as an ugly, noisy, industrial building.
Who, you may ask, put forward this application to install a car wash facility ? East Hampshire District Council (EHDC) claim that it was a private individual , one Mr S Durra, but a glance at the original application shows that the EHDC itself is listed alongside his name. That is not surprising when you consider that the central car park is owned by the EHDC who profit not only from car parking charges but any other income arising from the car park.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, the EHDC Planning Committee did not have sight of the application at all. The plan was all dealt with by Council staff.
The Council officers concerned took into account some sections of the Neighbourhood Plan but somehow omitted the most important one which is clearly stated under “Town Centre Vision” as the very first key point for the Central Car Park and Physic Garden area:
• Enhance views of, and access to, the stream with a new landscaped area to the rear of the Physic Garden.
The idea was to make an attractive walkway alongside the stream adjacent to the Physic Garden Clearly a car wash facility doesn’t in any way comply with this.
The Physic Garden is frequently described as “a peaceful oasis in the heart of the town” and consequently the noise of the car wash is a particular concern. Unfortunately the council officers concerned were unaware of where the Garden was showing it entirely in the wrong place on the application plan. This same plan was used by the Acoustic Engineers called in to consider the implications of having noisy machinery in the centre of town. As a result they didn’t consider the effect of such a noisy operation on the Garden at all !
To pacify objectors EHDC has since stated that the car wash will be controlled by the terms of a 15 year lease they have granted. However details of this have not been released and requests for it under the Freedom of Information Act were met with a statement that the licence is with the Land Registry – who promptly replied that they do not hold it. Further requests to EHDC were again turned down. Lock down and Covid 19 has taught us the value of the natural world and yet at the same time we are busy destroying the peace of the Physic Garden.
All of which may leave you wondering exactly what the value of the Neighbourhood Plan is and who is ensuring that it is followed since clearly EHDC are not. Neighbourhood has become No-bourhood. Is this the reward that all those volunteers who prepared the Plan get for all their efforts?
The Post asked East Hampshire District Council to respond to the article and these are their responses:
Q. Does the car wash affect the tranquillity of the garden?
It has measures to prevent noise nuisance, and noise from it isn’t intrusive in the garden.
Q. Was is the planning process faulty?
The planning team works in professional isolation from the rest of the council and is clearly guided by government and local planning policies. If there is no planning reason to refuse an application, it should be granted. Land ownership or a capacity to make money for the council, is irrelevant and it would be illegal to take these matters into consideration when considering an application.
Q. What weight did the Petersfield Neighbourhood Plan PNP carry?
Full weight was given to it, but no PNP policies were specifically relevant. It does include an aspiration to achieve better links between the garden and river and this does not preclude that.
Q. Why did the council approve this application?
It according with local plan policies, and would not detract from the area, have an unacceptable impact on nearby properties, or an adverse effect on the highway network, or harm the settings of nearby listed buildings.
It would enhance the town centre viability and the character of the Petersfield conservation area would be preserved.