by Mike Copland, Wye Flood Group
On Monday I asked you Is Wye safe in Ashford council’s hands? And now we have the answer and it is clearly ‘no’. Ashford Borough Council has approved the Oil Depot plans, without any conditions being imposed.
What went wrong? Practically everything: the failure of Ashford planners to manage the entire process over the past three years; their indifference to local concerns; Cllr Ian Cooling’s failure to act in time or keep his word; and finally, the barrage of misinformation put up on the night to confuse the Planning Committee.
Working closely together for over a year, Wye’s Flood Group, Parish Council and Village Design Group prepared a united case to justify design changes and some extra planning conditions to attach to the approval. These conditions would cost little, but make all the difference to the scheme when built and benefit both new and existing residents. Everything that could be done was done. By last week, even our Borough Councillor, Ian Cooling started to take notice. Having been conspicuous by his absence at the previous meeting, he asked us to brief him and agreed to support the combined Wye cause.
By Wednesday everything looked positive. Until, that is, about an hour before the Planning Committee meeting when Cllr Cooling suddenly changed his position and would not support our joint request for planning conditions.
We arrived at Ashford Civic Centre and encountered Ms Owen, FDC Homes’ agent. On previous occasions she was very aggressive, but this time she just smiled and murmured confidently that it was ‘all in the bag’.
The main thrust of my own three-minute piece was to point out that previously members had voted unanimously to defer a decision to wait for advice from the Environment Agency. Our Flood Group had then convened a site meeting with senior managers of the Environment Agency, who sent a four-page report to the Council, outlining the way forward. This suggested that the developer’s plans should be passed, but the council should enlarge the flood relief pipe to the river and a Section 106 agreement (attached to the planning consent) should require the developer to pay some of the costs. They finished with the words ‘subject to the above they would have no objection to the scheme’. But they made it clear that the scheme must be conditioned.
I pointed out that the planners’ report put before the committee mentioned the letter from the Environment Agency, and lifted a single sentence saying it would have ‘no objection to the scheme’ out of context. But in some mysterious way the report forgot to include all the agency’s caveats about conditions!
Ms Owen spoke next. She purred about the wonderful planners we have at Ashford and how their report was just right.
‘They had failed in every respect to respond to the advice they had been receiving for months from experts, residents, the Parish Council and the Village Design Group’
Then John Hodder, chairman of Wye Parish Council, gave an excellent speech disputing the planners’ report. They had failed in every respect to respond to the advice they had been receiving for months from experts, residents, the Parish Council and the Village Design Group. John went on to explain how the problems could be resolved simply by adding a few conditions, which he provided.
Cllr Cooling then approached the microphone. He started well, by telling the committee he supported all the comments made by the Flood Group and the Parish Council. But he ended by saying he was pressing for acceptance of the development and was not asking for a single condition. By asking for nothing he undermined our entire case. The faces of his electorate showed their reaction to this act of betrayal.
The head planner Lois Jarrett then addressed the councillors. She said that there may be better plans but, provided the one in front of them was acceptable, it should be passed. End of story. She then drew their attention to the Environment Agency report, claiming it had no objections. Both Ms Jarrett and the solicitor, Mr Baker, produced a stack of administrative obstacles to an improved scheme. In short, the committee was left in no doubt that any changes proposed by Wye would cost the council money.
Next up was Alan McNaughton, introduced as a completely independent consultant. He told the committee that his expertise spanned 25 years specialising in drainage matters and he had spent the morning at the council offices clarifying the issues. In that short time he had ‘phoned the Environment Agency, the Internal Drainage Board, Southern Water, and Network Rail’. He had also taken legal advice and carried out a cost benefit analysis. (I wonder what he did after coffee?)
‘The audience of residents was clearly impressed that some seven acres of flooding to a depth of two feet could be adequately concentrated into such a small confinement feature. Clearly there was exotic technology here’
Mr McNaughton went on to say that the report from the Environment Agency had not properly considered the facts and that its proposed optimum solution was not optimal at all. He confirmed that the developers’ plans to introduce a ditch along the front of the site and a small buried box-type structure was all that was needed to hold the flooding that occurred in the Bramble Lane area.
The audience of residents was clearly impressed that some seven acres of flooding to a depth of two feet could be adequately concentrated into such a small confinement feature. Clearly there was exotic technology here.
He concluded that his instant cost benefit analysis showed that the legal costs, planning and infrastructure required to bury a 30 metre length of 60 cm diameter plastic pipe across a piece of unmade land would be prohibitive. In his opinion the engineering and administrative costs would be so high that it was far preferable to let the houses continue to flood than consider solving the problem.
Understandably confused by the conflicting views, the councillors appeared split about what to do next. A messy debate followed where some councillors complained about listening to a bunch of whingeing residents when the council’s role was to encourage development in the borough. Some felt it should be approved subject to conditions, one was even ready to defer approval, but it was clear that most had had enough and just wanted to move on. Lois Jarrett then gave wavering councillors the opportunity to question their drainage consultant.
That move caught Mr McNaughton on the hop. It’s one thing to give a prepared talk, quite another to answer questions. Residents listened as he fudged answers that were just plain wrong. John Hodder jumped to his feet on several occasions protesting that the man didn’t know what he was talking about, but on each occasion was told to sit down and not interrupt.
With matters turning nasty, it went to the decision. They passed the plan by one vote, with several abstentions, and with no changes or extra conditions applied.
The dismayed residents left the meeting and talked in the car park below. The jubilant party of developers appeared, clearly delighted with their victory which meant their land had just jumped in value by several million pounds. When John Hodder told them that houses would flood and buyers of the 57 new houses would be cut off, the developer Mr Kingston agreed ‘flooding is not nice’, then added with an obvious indifference, ‘the residents will need boats’. The developers then left in a fleet of new BMW 4x4s.
A very shifty Mr McNaughton appeared. We asked who had he talked to at the Environment Agency. He retorted he couldn’t remember who he had spoken to (well it was a few hours ago!) and that he was a hydrologist, so he was always right. He refused to give his card or address and then made a run for his car.
If nothing else, Wye has gained an insight into the tactics used by Ashford’s planning officers, no doubt with political support, to manipulate the outcome of an important application on the AONB. Wye people acted in good faith throughout and have been treated with complete contempt.