An extraordinary meeting was held last night to consider what action Crowborough Town Council might take regarding planning permission granted to build up to 119 homes in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty AONB.
An application for a housing development next to Goldsmith Recreation Ground in Crowborough was approved by Wealden District Council (the planning authority) on 10th July.
What is very unusual, is the application was previously refused by Councillors at a meeting in March.
Before the Planning Committee’s decision was issued, it is understood Wealden District Council was contacted by the developer Fairfax Acquisitions Ltd raising potential procedural errors. To prevent a legal challenge, Wealden District Council decided to reconvene the Planning Committee to re-determine the application.
Last night using video conferencing, Town Councillors discussed a recommendation from the Planning & Development Committee to spend up to £10,000 to obtain specialist legal advice.
Cllr Colin Stocks (Jarvis Brook, Green Party) explained the reason for the request:
The aim of this is to try and defend Crowborough’s areas from planning developments which we believe are inappropriate and where it doesn’t look like due process have been followed by the planning authority.
The Mayor Cllr Greg Rose (Crowborough South East, Independent) said we don’t know the reason why the decision was made to refer it back to the committee, but that it was “bizarrely secretive”.
Cllr Stocks quoted from the Planning Officer’s report – he said this was the full extent of the explanation:
After application WD/2017/2197/MAO came before Planning Committee North on 5 March, concerns were raised about the decision-making process.
The Council was notified of this shortly after the committee meeting. Having obtained legal advice, the resolution to refuse was not acted upon so no decision was issued because the Council decided to take the application back to Planning Committee North.
Cllrs Martyn Garrett (Crowborough North, Independent) said he felt uncomfortable with one council taking legal action against another:
At the end of the day, whoever wins the only loser is the council tax payer.
He continued by arguing Crowborough Town Council needed an explanation before they seek legal opinion, and in addition other parishes needed to be motivated:
The AONB is under attack and it’s dear to our hearts.
Cllr Stocks refuted the idea that the only people to gain would be the lawyers. He said the whole community of Crowborough stand to gain:
We really shouldn’t let something so damaging stand without putting-up a fight.
During the meeting, Town Councillors heard that the Co-Directors of the AONB had taken the unusual step of writing to members of Wealden District Council’s Planning Committee to express their dismay at the decision. In the letter, Sally March and Jason Lavender wrote:
We were particularly concerned by some of the comments made during the debate which included ‘the site is not very beautiful, and you can’t see it anyway’ and ‘anything you can do to take the pressure off the south of the district’.
The AONB Unit is funded by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the 15 local authorities in the High Weald. In the last financial year Wealden District Council share towards their budget was £7,200.
Cllr Rose asked if you start building on the AONB where would it stop:
… when you decide to put a housing estate on it, the field next to it becomes less nice because it has a view of a housing estate.
Cllr Matthew Street (Crowborough St Johns, Conservative) proposed the Town Council should formally write to Wealden District Council asking for an explanation why the planning application was re-voted on and why membership of the committee was changed. The motion was carried by a 9-2 vote.
Full Council also approved the recommendation by the Planning and Development Committee that up to £10,000 is taken from General Reserves to fund specialist legal advice. The vote was: 8 For, 2 Against and 1 Abstention.
A further proposal by Cllr Rose to ask the Secretary of State to call-in the 10th July decision was also approved. This can be done when an application conflicts with national policy in important ways, or is nationally significant.