Town Planning and Dacorum Borough Council

"When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty."

George Bernard Shaw.

George Orwell's classic novel "Nineteen Eighty Four" is set in a totalitarian state governed by four ministries. The Ministry of Truth concerns itself with lies, the Ministry of Love with hate, the Ministry of Peace with war and the Ministry of Plenty with shortages. Dacorum Borough Council has the Development Control Committee, which does not control development.

When challenged, councillors and council officers fall back on the old excuse that they are just implementing planning law. It is true that the legislation is heavily biased in favour of developers and against neighbours. This is not surprising as the law is made by civil servants and politicians - urban indoor types who have wealthy property developers among their cronies but are less sympathetic to poorer conservationists.

However, an examination of Dacorum's planning decisions shows that the Borough Council regularly grants permission for developments where there are valid planning reasons for refusing them. This is partly the fault of the system, partly the fault of the officers who work it and partly the fault of the councillors who fail to make the officers accountable for their actions.

Planning decisions are supposed to be made by the councillors on the Development Control Committee after taking advice from planning officers and consulting neighbours and parish councils. In fact few councillors take the trouble to study the plans or visit the sites of planning applications. They rely totally on advice from the officers, in most cases agreeing with party colleagues in advance of Development Control Meetings to "Rubber-stamp" the officers' recommendations.

Neighbours who have the courage to speak at the Development Control Committee Meetings subsequently are participating in a charade. The decisions have already been made. They are also treated with absolute contempt. Speakers have been laughed at, sneered at and lied to. One lady was called a "NIMBY" to her face. Most leave frustrated, humiliated and feeling that they have wasted their time. They are right.

The system makes Dacorum's Chief Planning Officer one of the most powerful men in the Borough. Whatever he says generally goes. Unfortunately, nobody makes him act in the best interests of local people, and he does not always do so.

Dacorum Borough Council's former Director of Planning Colin Barnard and his wife, a Planning Officer in the neighbouring district of St. Albans, owned four houses and six cars, and had three children at expensive private schools. Their annual salaries totalled approximately 70,000. When challenged about apparently living beyond his means, Mr. Barnard said that he had received an inheritance when his father died.

If a developer is refused permission, he can appeal against the council's decision. This is an expensive legal process in which both sides hire a barrister, so it particularly favours wealthy developers. There is no guarantee that the council will recover its costs even if it wins the appeal. It also involves the Planning Officers in a good deal of additional work. Thus the officers can save themselves effort, and the council money, by granting permission wherever possible.

By contrast, objectors who believe that planning permission has been wrongly granted have no right of appeal. If they have a spare 40,000 or so they can take the matter to a Judicial Review. Otherwise their only course of action is to complain to the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman is under no obligation to investigate any particular case. He only has the resources to investigate a fraction of the complaints which pour into his office regarding local authorities throughout Britain. He therefore gets rid of most complainants by the most expedient method - either telling them they have not suffered sufficient injustice or finding in favour of the council without investigation - and investigates only a few complaints properly. Like all Ombudsmen, his real brief is to prove that there is nothing wrong with the system.

There are a few cases in which the Ombudsman finds against the council, but even then the council is under no obligation to do as directed by the Ombudsman. Both the Ombudsman and local authorities are effectively above the law.

Councillor Janette Dunbavand, who chaired the Development Control Committee, and others have pointed out to me that Dacorum is much better at winning appeals than many other councils. There are two possible explanations for this. The one Councillor Dunbavand does not mention is that the Borough Council only refuses planning permission in cases where an appeal is least likely to be successful: the most outrageous of developments proposed by the less wealthy applicants.

Dacorum is legally obliged to "Consult" town and parish councils before making planning decisions, but has turned this consultation into a disreputable sham. The Borough Council asks the parish councils for their opinion, ignores it and occasionally sends them letters explaining why they granted planning permission against the wishes of local people. Some of the excuses given are obviously spurious.

For example, were were recently told that a tree needed to be cut back hard because it was obstructing a footpath. As a regular user of the path I can confirm that this was not true. However, it did over-hang an undeveloped plot of land. I now await the planning application from one of Dacorum's cronies to build another ugly box there.

Sometimes the planning officers' advice is obviously wrong. Despite this, the officers are often unwilling to be corrected, and the councillors rubber-stamp whatever the officers decide. Dacorum's howlers include the following:

Reference number 4/0881/95. An application to build thirteen terraced houses, garages and parking at 3 Shrublands Road and 48 Cross Oak Road, Berkhamsted.

Berkhamsted Town Council stated among its objections that the plans were inaccurate. In particular, the positions of trees marked on the plans bore no relation to their actual locations on the site. Dacorum Borough Council granted planning permission without comment. The construction work caused damage to the foundations of the adjacent house in Cross Oak Road, necessitating emergency repairs.

Reference number 4/0978/95. An application to demolish the existing house and erect of five detached dwellings at Netherfield, Gravel Path, Berkhamsted.

One of Berkhamsted Town Council's objections to this was that the access was dangerous for the increase in traffic which five new dwellings would bring. Dacorum's officers stated that there were no traffic implications, as up to fifty people had worked on the premises in the past. This was actually in the early 1950's, when very few staff would have driven to work.

Reference number 4/1554/97. An application to prune a Sycamore tree at 2 Gresham Court, Berkhamsted.

Berkhamsted Town Council objected on the grounds that there appeared to be no Sycamore tree on the premises. Dacorum Borough Council granted permission for it to be pruned!

Planning decisions are supposed to be made in accordance with the Borough Local Plan. This is a large tome written by Borough Council officers after a sham consultation with local organisations and the general public. It must be drawn up in accordance with Government and Herfordshire County Council policy, but apart from this Dacorum's senior planning officers can include more or less whatever they like.

As the local plan is wordy and turgid, very few people, including councillors and the statutory consultees, bother to read it. I expect this occurs to the officers who write it. It is also largely irrelevant. The Borough Council ignores its own local plan whenever it finds it convenient to do so. As it is the Borough Council which is also responsible for enforcing planning law, there is little that objectors can do.

The Jarman Park development in Hemel Hempstead was built on Green Belt land, in defiance of the local plan. There was also a restrictive covenant on the site which prevented it being used for anything other than recreation. The supermarket, hamburger joint and nightclubs which have been built there are commercial, not recreational. They also cause a great deal of nuisance to local residents.

Similarly, when Berkhamsted's new Waitrose store was built, a proportion of the town's largest public car park was sold to the John Lewis Partnership for its private use. Dacorum got round the accusation that it had reduced public parking by transferring a proportion of the parking allocated to staff working in the town centre to an unmade car park across the canal. This was only intended to serve the local bowls, tennis and football clubs. Again this land is zoned for recreational, not commercial use in the Borough Local Plan.

Since 1995, Dacorum has granted permission for three quarters of developments which Berkhamsted Town Council recommends for refusal. It has granted permission for building in the Green Belt near Chipperfield on five recent occasions, in defiance of both Chipperfield Parish Council and the Borough Local Plan.

Northchurch Parish Council was also "Consulted" on development in the Green Belt, and sent a letter signed by the Council Chairman, Conservative Councillor Alan Fantham, to Dacorum opposing it. A copy was inadvertently returned to the Parish Council, on which the then Borough Council Chief Executive Keith Hunt had written: "Do not take much notice of this - it is his own opinion".

There are, of course, occasions when Dacorum does refuse planning permission, sometimes quite rightly but sometimes for resons which have nothing to do with the interests of local people. A particularly shocking example is provided by the Fisherman's Cabin in St. John's Well Lane, Berkhamsted. This is a part-time business selling fishing tackle, run by a local family from a converted shed at the bottom of its garden. It is located at the other end of the St. John's Well Lane car park from the new Waitrose store. It had operated under temporary planning permission for some time, but in 1996 Dacorum refused to renew this and tried to close the shop down. The reason given was that it, "Did not accord with the Berkhamsted Town Centre Local Plan" - in other words, it might get in the way of car parking for Waitrose.

Following a public outcry and a petition raised by former Independent Berkhamsted Town Councillor Simon West, the owners submitted a new planning application which was granted by Dacorum. The Fisherman's Cabin remained in business. Perhaps Dacorum Borough Council does occasionally take notice of public opinion, after all.

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