Reading of EMS rules has council confused

SIR – I would like to share with your readers a very recent experience I had at the hands of the Welwyn Hatfield Council s planners. I live at 11 The Links, at the south end of Valley Road in one of a semi-detached pair. Late in December 2007 my neighbou

SIR - I would like to share with your readers a very recent experience I had at the hands of the Welwyn Hatfield Council's planners.

I live at 11 The Links, at the south end of Valley Road in one of a semi-detached pair. Late in December 2007 my neighbour and I got together and decided we would like to modestly extend the smallest of our four bedrooms (about 6.5 ft by 7.5 ft) at the rear of the properties.

It is important to note that the ground rises steeply at the rear, so our gardens are terraced. The backs of our houses are not overlooked.

Our separate, but linked planning applications were refused by the planning control committee on February 14, 2008 on the grounds that our extensions 'by virtue of the scale, form and design of the infill extensions . . would be out of keeping with, and detrimental to the form and design of the original dwellings and accordingly would fail to preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the central WGC Conservation Area.' This, despite the fact no-one would see these extensions but ourselves!

My neighbour and I lodged an appeal, which, unsurprisingly, was successful.

On November 28 we were granted planning consent by the planning inspector.

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However, on seeking written confirmation from the council of this, I was told that now I had to seek permission under the Estate Management Scheme, which had fallen into disuse and disrepute in the preceding 20 to 30 years!

Now we come to the interesting part. The planning committee, at its meeting on Valentine's Day, 2008, as well as turning down our planning applications, had also refused us permission under the EMS - but they conveniently forgot to tell us.

Therefore we had no alternative but to lodge an appeal against that refusal.

In this case, be it noted that the body that was going to hear our EMS appeal was the same body that had refused our EMS application 15 months before. This is against all ideas of 'natural justice'.

Even a convicted murderer has the right to appeal to an independent body.

This time the chief planning officer, reinforced by an opinion from a barrister, recommended to the planning committee that the appeal be allowed.

Alas it was not to be. Members of the committee, thoroughly confused by the similarities and subtle dissimilarities of the Conservation Area and EMS area regulations, ducked the decision on April 8, 2009 and called for 'more information'. This was to consist of an opinion from an architect.

So we waited for yet another month. The total time that had elapsed since the original submission for planning consent, was now 18 months.

At last, on Thursday, May 14, the planning committee saw fit to allow our appeals. Even then, two members of the committee were still apparently so confused and bewildered they abstained!

The points at issue which I would like to draw to the attention of your readers are:

1. The officer's report to the planning committee on all three occasions contained inaccuracies which, I am sure, misled members of the committee, eg. that the extension would double the floor area at first floor level. Such discrepancies undermine members' confidence in the veracity of any report and the competence of the author.

2. As stated above, I was tried by one court and then my appeal was heard by the same court. Where is the justice in that? Appeals must be dealt with by a body which is independent of the council. I am taking this up with the council's chief executive.

3. The Estate Management Scheme as set up at present is inoperable in the face of seemingly conflicting regulations in the planning system and Conservation Area regulations. The council needs to get its act together and decide whether and how it is going to enforce the Estate Management Scheme in some sane, commonsense way. The leaflets describing the 'revised' scheme should have been distributed to the public last Autumn - has any reader seen one?

4. During the course of the first hearing of our EMS appeal, the chairman offered the view that mine was a test case. If that is indeed so then the EMS is as good as dead and buried.

We need an effectively managed and enforced EMS in order to safeguard standards in WGC, particularly with regard to the street scene - hedges (or lack of them), car parking, loss of 'soft' landscaping, poorly designed pvc windows, fences instead of hedges. All these need attention, NOT arcane arguments about minor infills at the unseen backs of houses.

5. The two refusals I have described have cost me and my neighbour a lot of money and there has been expenditure from the public purse by the planning department. This has all been unnecessary since it could all have been avoided if good sense had prevailed at the onset in February 2008.

Finally, may I assure readers that I do not favour a 'free-for-all' in planning in this lovely town.

My wife and I have lived here for 52 years and I have always done what I can to ensure that the council maintains and even improves standards.

But with the supposed beefing up of the EMS, the borough council has got itself in a tangle and the only way out is to sort out how the EMS relates to the planning laws, Conservation Area regulations and the covenants in our leases.

And all that in a way that the residents of the town can fully understand!

Dr Dennis Lewis,

The Links, WGC.