The event having the most potential in many years to affect the immediate future of Appleby took place on Thursday 3rd May, when the Eden District Council Planning Committee held a meeting in the Market Hall (sorry, Public Hall) in Appleby to consider the application by Story Homes to build 143 houses in the Back Lane/Cross Croft area. It was a bit of a struggle to get to this point without the application being considered at very short notice and without proper opportunities for people to express their opinions, but I will not bore you with these difficulties. Suffice it to say that those of us who had submitted written objections were afforded the chance to expand those objections to the Committee in person, within certain conditions, at the Chairman’s discretion, for probably up to five minutes. All of us. In total. “Maybe they could get together??” After further negotiation, it was agreed that “at the Chairman’s discretion”, they could have 3 minutes each.
We were asked to present ourselves at the Public Hall at 12.15 to start the meeting at 12.30. The Committee had visited the site in the morning, but no-one had thought to schedule time for them to eat so we went through the undignified procedure of pitching up at the same time as the Committee members, us to be denied entry to the Hall and the Committee having to shoulder their way through the by now fairly bolshie audience to partake of their hurried cold collation, which they no doubt needed to fortify themselves for the concentrated debate ahead of them. That’s Planning for you! The EDC Planning Service had prepared a Report on the application for presenting to the Committee summing up the pros and cons of the project, extending to 36 A4 pages. Just about all the objections we have heard about were represented in that Report, but they were all excused or dismissed as being less than important and no remedies were suggested or a planner‘s rationale was presented to answer the objection. Their conclusion and recommendation was that the application should be accepted.
Things got under way with planners presenting the application in outline and saying what a marvellous thing this would be for Appleby (basically going through the Report). It was at this point that we discovered that the acoustics in the front part of the Hall are not what they should be – speakers were VERY hard to hear. Committee members were then asked for questions to their planning staff, at which there were some fairly faint-hearted queries put forward. Then it was the turn of those who wished to speak to the Committee. People restricted themselves well to within their three minutes, and spoke up well and clearly, and several points were made. Maggie Clowes spoke of the difficulty of using public transport to get to various places of work and had the wonderful idea of presenting each Committee member with a timetable of relevant busses and trains – I wouldn’t have dared! Then I held forth on how the Committee should read the authentic voices of Appleby residents in the submission we made, based on our questionnaire last year. Graham Page presented a closely-reasoned and technical piece on how the District Council should await the imminent up-date of their housing requirements before concluding a revised plan to meet the needs of now and Steve Taylor dealt with potential danger at the access/egress point of the development. Richard McGuire gave an impassioned plea for the salvation of Bongate Cross, despite its not being listed, then Shirley Allan and Sue Guest put forward their personal feelings about how their lives would be changed by the planned development. These presentations did not elicit many questions from the Committee, and it is only now that I understand why (see below).
The applicants had to be given equal time, so a man and a girl from Story’s repeated their publicity mantra, largely inaudibly, without in any way answering the objections that had been made. They were questioned quite closely by the Committee, especially about affordable housing and at what stage it would be provided. When it came to the personal opinions of the Committee members, much to the surprise of the assembled residents, it became apparent it was NOT a “done deal“, and that several of the Committee members had grave doubts as to whether or not this was an appropriate package of development for Appleby at this stage, and for a variety of reasons that had been expressed in objections. The preservation of Bongate Cross was strongly supported.
Before the vote, another Planning Officer, Mr Kevin Hutchinson (I think – the introductions went by so quickly and inaudibly) explained to the Committee that they could pass the proposal in toto, or they could reject it in toto. A third course of action was available in that they could defer the decision if one or two minor but definite points caused this deferment, which could be swiftly remedied. As it was, the result was to postpone the final decision until a further meeting of the Committee, which seemed to fit none of the rules explained by the Planning Officer, and leaves us in a state of wondering what is going to happen next, especially since the Committee changes personnel before the next meeting! Do we have to go through the whole procedure again, or what? Will there be an attempt to fudge the issue by hurrying things along? Watch not this space but the “Herald” and EDC websites.
On a broader view, when we asked to speak before the Committee, we were told that we could only refer to matter in our written submission. It became apparent to me while thinking over the whole experience, that the Committee members are not presented with copies of our submissions, but rely on the summary of those submissions included in the Report to the Committee written by the Planning Service and delivered to them about a week before the meeting. This is in fact reasonable; the members could not all read every word submitted to them, some of which may be incoherent and/or irrelevant. It is sensible that they are presented with a resume of what people wrote, and even that Report was long enough, but one has to bear in mind that it has passed through another person’s hands and mind and been filleted before being presented to the Committee. The resume of our case was entirely fair, but it was not what we wrote. Hence the falling on uncomprehending ears when I pleaded for Committee members to “read the actual words written by the respondents to our questionnaire”. They did not see the questionnaire (we sent them a sample) or read the comments we had forwarded to support it. On reflection, it is too much to expect members to do all that reading so the solution arrived at is probably the best that can be done, but it alters one’s approach to the problem of what to put in a submission and what to leave out. And it changes radically what you might want to present verbally to such a Committee.