The appeal hearing against the refusal of planning permission for ‘Jacobean Moorings’ at Grove Farm has now been concluded. The result will be known around the end of March. The hearing lasted 5.5 days including a formal inspection of the site and visits to neighbours’ properties so the Inspector could assess the potential impact of the proposed development.
I am Leighton Jones, speaking on behalf of The Knowle Society, which was founded in 1962 in order to ‘maintain the character of the village’. In the nearly 50 years since its foundation, it has worked continuously to achieve that aim with the support of local residents. The Society is a charity and company limited by guarantee and has some 3000 members, approximately 1/3 of the adult population of Knowle. Knowle does not have a parish council and so the Society aims to represent the views of the residents of the village in planning matters.
The ‘Objects’ of the Society are: –
1. to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic or public interest in the area of benefit or adjacent areas;
2. to educate the public in the geography, history, natural history and architecture of the area of benefit; and
3. to promote a high standard of planning and architecture in or affecting the area of benefit and to oppose any inappropriate developments.
In order to achieve these ‘objects’ the Society has a Planning Committee which is chaired by a Trustee Director (myself) and which reports to the Board of Trustee Directors and to the membership. It does the latter through reports to monthly members’ meetings and through its website and quarterly newsletter. The Committee members are not professional planners, although we have gained experience of the planning system through our regular reviews of planning application. We also meet regularly with the Council’s planning officers to discuss general planning issues of relevance to our village.
The Society’s planning committee considered in detail the development which is the subject of this inquiry and came to the clear conclusion that it was inappropriate. We therefore submitted a letter of objection to the original planning application and have made a further submission to the Planning Inspectorate, objecting to the scheme. In these submissions we identified a number of factors that supported our opinion that the development was inappropriate. We sustain all those points and request that they should have a bearing on the decision. However I wish to concentrate today on the most significant factors. These are the impact on Green Belt with the lack of any over-riding very special circumstances; the effect on the setting of Grove Farm; and concerns about the possible future use of the moorings.
Green Belt considerations
It is accepted by the applicants that the site of the proposed development is in the strategically important part of the Green Belt known as the Meriden Gap. We would contend that development in the Meriden Gap should meet the highest standards of design and need, over and above those for developments in other parts of the Green Belt, as it is so important to prevent urban spread between Solihull and Coventry. The Council has described in its evidence how this proposal comprises development which is inappropriate in the Green Belt and is therefore by definition harmful to it. The onus is therefore on the appellant to demonstrate that ‘very special circumstances’ exist that outweigh the harm to the Green Belt. I will leave the technical arguments to the experts but I do want to explain why The Knowle Society considers that the proposal will cause significant harm to the Green Belt and then consider the circumstances that the appellant considers override the presumption against development in this case.
It is our contention that the impact of this scheme on the Green Belt lies in its major impact on the openness of the Green Belt and its encroachment of urban development into the countryside. You have seen the site, which consists of a number of open fields running down to the Grand Union Canal and a small pond. The site is clearly visible from some of the houses in Wychwood Avenue, from Grove Farm, and particularly from the canal towpath and the public footpath that runs through the site. The proposed development would convert that open aspect into a heavily engineered and intensively altered site. The whole of the site would be affected by the earth-moving works, either from the construction of the mooring basin or by the stripping of the existing land surface to allow the dumping of the material excavated from the basin, raising ground levels by a significant amount. In the process the whole shape and appearance of the site would be altered.
The scheme would allow 140 boats to be moored at the site, parked in serried ranks around the perimeter of the basin. It is very likely that the vast majority of this number would remain on site at all times. Based on the applicant’’s provision of 40 car parking spaces and the very reasonable assumption that anyone taking a boat out would arrive by car, at least 100 boats would remain parked on site at all times.
This would create a semi-permanent presence of extensive scale which would be bound to have a significant visual impact on the openness of the site. The proposal has been compared by the applicant (non-technical summary s7.8) as ‘akin to a static caravan park’. Provision in the Green Belt of a such a caravan park taking up an area of land of the size of the basin and in a single massing would never be acceptable, so why should the same large area dedicated to boat moorings be considered acceptable, especially as they are even more difficult to screen?
Meanwhile the remainder of the site is to be subjected to conversion from open farm-land into a mixture of mainly scrub and rough grassland interspersed with open and dense woodland, completely changing its character. Further, the construction of a lengthy access road, car parking and the installation of lighting, will all encroach into the countryside and add to the urbanisation of the site. The applicant makes much in the local visual impact assessment of the restriction by trees etc of the view of the mooring basin, thus confirming the reduction in the openness of the site.
For these reasons The Knowle Society supports the Council’s assessment that the proposed development will harm this sensitive part of the Green Belt by adversely impacting on its openness and changing the tranquil character of the canal-side environment which is enjoyed by walkers, fishermen and those using the canal.
Very special circumstances
The appellant has argued that the claimed need by British Waterways for moorings in Solihull coupled with the lack of alternative locations in the urban area and Green Belt within the Borough constitute the very special circumstances that override the presumption against development in this case.
The appellant has suggested that the Society has accepted that very special circumstances exist because we referred in our letter of 1 August 2009 to SMBC to the existence of this application and the one at Stripes Hill and stated that “while one of these developments might be acceptable, that is the limit of any such development that should be allowed.” We went on to comment that “we have not yet had the opportunity to study this [the Jacobean Lane] proposal.” Once we had, we were clear that it was inappropriate development in the Green Belt and that there were no sufficiently convincing very special reasons for allowing the development.
I am aware that if the need for moorings were fully established this could form the basis of a very special circumstances case. In considering whether the need is in fact very special in this case, I would ask you to satisfy yourself as to the following matters:
i) that the need has been robustly assessed, is local to Solihull and is not over-inflated, bearing in mind that British Waterways does have a commercial interest in promoting additional moorings and the doubt over its forecasts;
ii) that the appeal site is the most suitable location in the area. The vast majority of the boats will be ‘parked’ for most of the year, adding minimal benefit in terms of enhancing the recreational value of the canal to local people. The boats clearly do not need to be parked in an attractive location to fulfil any need for a mooring so a less appealing location would be perfectly adequate;
iii) Mr Bays has asserted that there is a causal relationship between the low number of berths on this section of the canal and its low usage, thereby demonstrating a need for this marina. I would ask you to consider another reason for the low usage. This section is indeed attractive, but it is a stretch of just 5km (3 miles) between the restriction of Knowle Locks and the start of the West Midlands conurbation, where the canal corridor suddenly becomes much less attractive as a place to cruise. It’s not surprising it’s little used.
iv) There is also the issue of the convenience of this site. Standard length canal boats need an extra wide section of canal (a ‘winding hole’ or similar) to turn around. Going north there is one just 1.4km (1 mile) from the site, south of Catherine de Barnes, but the next one is 15km (10 miles) further on, near the middle of Birmingham. On the first part of this section the canal is mainly in a cutting with overhanging trees, the rest is through industrial areas, many of them derelict. On the other hand the locks are 2.4km (1.5miles) to the south of the site and take 3/4hr or more to traverse. Therefore a boater intending to go out for the day has the choice of a very short run north (or going into Birmingham and back) or working the locks twice, once down and once up. You may wish to consider whether this site is at all suitable for its intended purpose and whether the berths will ever be filled.
v) It has been suggested by the appellant that moving 140 boats from on-line moorings to this off-line one would have a neutral impact on the openness of the Green Belt. The appellant also states that there are very few boats currently moored on the stretch of the Grand Union that lies within the SMBC boundary. It follows therefore that if this application were to succeed and the berths taken up, there would need to be a net importation of nearly all boats from elsewhere to fill the marina, every one of them adding to the total impact on the openness of the Green Belt in this location.
If the over-riding need for such a large number of moorings somewhere in Solihull is in fact demonstrated, the Society would prefer a plan-led approach to the identification of suitable sites through local interest groups and the Council liaising with adjoining authorities and British Waterways to properly assess the alternatives and identify sites which minimise harm to the Green Belt. Such a process would be consistent with the Localism agenda.
The appellant has not clearly demonstrated any other significant circumstances such as social or economic benefits that add to his ‘very special’ case. The claimed benefits to the local community would at best be minimal as most boat users would arrive with supplies and then depart around the waterways, only replenishing wherever they subsequently stop. Knowle is a thriving community with an active retail and restaurant offering, as is demonstrated by the current application on behalf of Waitrose to establish a store in the village. We do not need the small additional trade that might result from the imposition of this development.
The Knowle Society’s conclusion is that the ‘very special circumstances’ case as stated by the applicant is not proven and, even if it were it would not outweigh the extent of harm to the Green Belt caused by the development.
I now turn to my other points.
Effect on the setting of Grove Farm
Grove Farm is a listed building which has recently been renovated and converted to separate dwellings. The proposals completely alter its setting from sitting within farm land in open countryside to being separated from the open countryside by an artificially created landscape with a new access road leading down to the car park areas and mooring basin. It is our view that the setting to the north and east of the Listed building would thus be changed in a way that we consider is detrimental to the interests of the listed building.
Use of the moorings
Whilst I appreciate that the appellant has indicated the use of only one boat for residential purposes, I am aware of a recent decision relating to the Lemonroyd marina in Leeds
where consent has been granted at an established marina for a number of boats to be used for residential purposes. This was regularising a situation which had apparently existed for some time and it was partly justified on the grounds that the boats provided a form of affordable housing. We are worried that, if approved, a similar situation could develop at these moorings and the Leeds decision would set an unwelcome precedent, making it difficult for the Council to resist conversion to residential use. If you were minded to approve this application, we would expect there to be a condition putting liability on the operators to prevent residential use of the boats but we would strongly wish not to be placed in a position of occupancy having to be monitored.
The Society does not see why this development should be imposed upon Knowle, as there will be very little, if any, advantage to Knowle and significant adverse impacts. In the spirit of Localism which the Government has as one of its major policies, development should meet the needs of local communities and should be led at neighbourhood level or be of such a major advantage to the national interest that the local interest can be over-ridden. It is our contention that this development does not meet either of these conditions and the appeal should fail.
for The Knowle Society
6 Feb 2011