On Wednesday night, we had the biggest planning application that has ever been decided by Surrey Heath. We were asked to consider an application for the Princess Royal Barracks in Deepcut.
Now it is important to understand that any planning matters as well as licensing applications should be entirely non-political. They are classed as quasi-judicial and what that means is that councillors should consider the issues individually, weigh up the evidence before them and then come to their own decision. This means that there is no “Conservative” position or “Labour” position for that matter – we all have to keep an open mind on the subject and this is backed by the unusual situation of cllrs having to sit in alphabetical order rather than with their political group. One way of describing it is a bit like a jury in a trial except that there were 33 of us rather than the usual 12 and we deliberate in public rather than the privacy of a jury room. But there is one similarity and that is we can only take into account relevant evidence and for planning, this means something called “material planning considerations.”
So without getting too technical, this means that there are often real fears, worries, comments and concerns that we cannot take into account. In addition, some of the issues before us had in effect been decided already for example by a Planning Inspector. In the case of Deepcut, this was very important as some of the issues had already gone before an independent planning inspector who had considered a number of points as part of Surrey Heath’s Core Strategy. As an example, it meant that the principle of development on the site and also the number of houses (1200) had been established already.
The application before us on Wednesday was mainly what is called an outline application namely that some of the other principles are agreed but not some of the detail which would come back to the Council in due course. This is explained well by Paul Deach in his blog on the subject.
Now coming to the meeting itself and I know there is often a lot of scepticism about whether people decide in advance but I can genuinely say that I had an open mind on the issue. I had read through the officer report in advance along with all of the e-mails from residents that had been sent to me. These raised certain questions in my mind that I was keen to see answered but other than that, I had a blank sheet of paper before me as my neighbour for the evening, Cllr Bush, could attest. It appeared that the main issues were likely to be traffic and the supermarket but with some secondary issues.
I can’t speak for other cllrs but I certainly didn’t have any speech prepared and pretty sure no-one else did either. Looking around the stage, most people were making notes as they were going along either on paper like me or on their electronic devices.
The start was a lengthy officer report going through the papers and summarising the reasons for their recommendation to approve. This didn’t really tell me much that I didn’t already know.
Then followed a very important part of the meeting where objectors and the applicant have their say. This is usually very helpful as it clarifies the main points of dispute and can help cllrs to hone the discussion into relevant areas.
The public speakers covered a range of issues but mainly talked about the supermarket and traffic concerns in Deepcut, Lightwater and surrounding areas. This confirmed my view that these were the two key issues to consider but also that some of the concerns (such as the specific location of the supermarket) was not a decision to be taken on the day but would come back to the Council in due course as what is called a “reserved matter”.
I was very interested to hear from the speakers but was particularly taken by comments made by David Whitcroft making reference to criticism by the Inspector about traffic implications especially relating to the supermarket. This had not been mentioned in the officer report. His answers were helpful and as a result, decided to have a further detailed look during the meeting at the Deepcut Supplementary Planning Document to try and understand the logic of the proposed supermarket size. Later on, when the applicant spoke in support of their scheme, I asked them to clarify how they had to come to their figures and the evidence base for this and it became clear that this was based on a report covering an area bigger than Deepcut.
The point here is that everyone stated that they want a supermarket covering the local area and not the wider surroundings but the disagreement is what size does that mean? After the speakers and checking the background, I felt uncomfortable at the lack of evidence base on this and in particular that the relevant planning condition (44) fixed the size without obvious justification.
Turning to the wider issues, unfortunately a number of the councillors began asking the speakers questions about matters that were not raised in their speech or representation. Perhaps this was due to sympathy or lack of understanding of procedures but either way, this took far longer than it should have done and after 1 hr 45 mins at 8.45pm, we had only had the officer reports, 4 speakers and the applicant and questions.
The meeting then turned to highways issues which was a critical part. The developer had submitted their own traffic assessment and the Highways Authority considered that a number of mitigation measures should be provided both in the Deepcut area and wider. However, as a further check, SHBC had commissioned an independent consultant to do their own research recognising that many would be cynical of the developer’s report even if SCC consider it.
Again, there are a couple of key points here. The first is that the application can only be asked to mitigate the new or additional impact that it will have. Therefore, the applicant cannot be asked to address current or ongoing traffic or road safety issues which would be a problem regardless of whether it went ahead. This is important because a number of the junctions were already identified as over capacity and therefore works would be necessary anyway.
On a similar point, the two traffic assessments had come up with some mitigation measures which were the same and some measures that were different. However, there were also a number of roads and junctions that were not mentioned by either. Put bluntly, if you have two reports along with Highways conclusions (the statutory expert) and a road or junction is not identified as needing mitigation by any of them then cllrs cannot insist upon it. To do so would be clearly unreasonable which is why officers had to regularly remind people of this.
The final point is that cllrs cannot amend the application for example by adding extra mitigation measures. We either had to accept or reject it and if we rejected it, we need to come up with good reasons as to why. The Highways issues are dealt with by means of a Legal Agreement and this is different to the situation regarding planning conditions where we did make some important changes later on.
My own view was to try and work out why there were differences in the two reports and in particular the junctions and mitigation measures identified by the SHBC consultant that were not being included. I was concerned that the report appeared to suggest that the application would be unviable if all of the measures from both were adopted. However, I was pleased to hear from the Highways officer that this was not the case and he gave a good explanation that the differences were due to some different assumptions in traffic flow and where certain junctions would be affected.
To run through an example that I used at the meeting, I was very concerned about the bridge at Deepcut Bridge Road as someone who regularly drives this route. The applicant report had proposed traffic lights at this location and this was also the same solution put forward by the SHBC report. Personally, I doubt that this is the best answer and feel this would result in queueing and pedestrian safety issues. However, we have had two reports come to the same conclusion about the appropriate measures there and whatever my personal views are therefore not evidenced in comparison.
As the meeting went on, we then discussed some important changes to conditions. The most important and my concern was that the supermarket size had not been justified at this point and therefore was keen that a further retail study looking at this should be done. Also, from reading resident letters, it was clear that residents were concerned about weekend working and in particular had suggested Saturdays as 9am to 6pm (rather than 8am). I agreed with this and therefore proposed a move to 9am to 2pm thus allowing an extra hour’s sleep at the weekend.
A number of other important condition changes were made although personally I was not overly happy with some of the comments about social housing levels when we are in desperate need of such housing in the borough. This will be a discussion for a later stage.
Through the discussion, it became clear to me that the correct decision would be to approve the application subject to the amended conditions. There only appeared to be one outstanding reason to refuse which had been raised by one of the Chobham cllrs namely that the application did not include a site for gypsy and travellers which had been within the Deepcut SPD. I had some sympathy with this view and the Borough must find 19 pitches but on balance agreed with the Planning officers that the wider benefits of this application justified the change. As a passing note, there was considerable public opposition to such a proposal as there tends to be with such sites anywhere.
A few other questions have come up since:-
Why did the meeting end so quickly?
Cllr Chris Pitt (who represents one of the areas) put forward a procedural motion that “the motion now be put” which the majority of cllrs supported. On balance, I agreed with this – the time was now well past 11pm and we had already spent over 4 hours discussing the issue. For the previous hour, I had not heard any fundamental new points or evidence. I know that some have been critical but personally I would have stopped the meeting at 10.30pm and come back another day. I am not in favour of decisions being made in the early hours of the morning when people are tired and in many cases, worked all day on one of the hottest days of the year but equally recognise that residents were keen to have a decision that night and it would not have been easy to reschedule another meeting quickly.
Why was the meeting not deferred?
At no stage during the meeting did any Cllr put forward a proposal to defer the meeting. Some have suggested that a further highways survey should have been commissioned but as pointed out by others, we already had 2 reports commissioned by different people and both had been assessed by the Highways Department. Would a 3rd or 4th report made any difference here as the Highways Dept had already made their views very clearly. It should be noted as unusual that there would be two reports on this – usually it would just be the applicant’s assessed by Highways not a second or independent one as here.
Why did the Council accept the applicant report on mitigation and not their own report?
If we had decided to go with the SHBC report, this would have resulted in three additional smaller local junctions being addressed. However, it would also have meant that there would have been absolutely no mitigation on three larger junctions namely Red Road/The Maultway, Gordons Roundabout and M3/A322. On this occasion, the developer had put forward many more mitigation measures than the SHBC report including a wider package.
The overall voting showed that there was no politics involved here. Those in favour were 21 Conservative and myself. Those against were 7 Con, 2 Ind and 1 Lib Dem mainly but not entirely from the local areas.
The final point is that this was just my thinking and not the official SHBC position! I have no doubt that many people will continue to disagree but I hope it at least shows some explanation about the difficult areas and rules that we have to act within and that the decision was carefully considered. Hopefully more members will give their own views as I think the public deserve the right to know why people came to the view that they did.