Sunday, 1 November 2015

Bizarre planning decisions and who benefits

Hot on the heels of my last post, on a hotel application approved in the Pentlands Regional Park, comes another bizarre and worrying decision by Midlothian councillors.

A site referred as to the the 'Former Arniston Gas Works' sounds like it's an old industrial site which would benefit from being cleaned up and turned over to something prettier and more useful like housing, but a site visit reveals something very different.

Viewed here on Google Maps (it's just to the left of the A7, adjacent to the track and Borders Rail line), it's clearly only about 20% brownfield, comprising some hard standing, holding a few skips and containers. The rest is woodland and open ground with shrubs and bushes. It's also very much in what would be called a rural location.

The proposal for ten luxury houses (full details here - Item 7a) was rejected by planning officials as it contravened the current and proposed Local Plans and was inadequately served by public transport.

When an application determined by officers under delegated powers, as with this one, is refused, the developer has a right to appeal. The appeal is heard by the Local Review Body which comprises ten of Midlothian's 18 councillors. Also, only those members of LRB who attend a site visit prior to determination are allowed to vote on the appeal.

In this instance the following councillors were eligible to vote - Cllrs Baxter, Bennett, Bryant (chair), Constable, de Vink, Imrie, Milligan and Montgomery.

As far as I recall, only two arguments were presented in favour of upholding the appeal - that this is a Brownfield site and that it is adjacent to the area known as Redheughs, designated for some 700 houses in the proposed Local Development Plan.

The first, as I've said, is simply not true - and was backed by the Forestry Commission, which has stated that if planning permission were to be refused, it wanted to return the whole site to natural woodland. The Forestry Commission had also complained that illegal tree felling had already taken place at the site.

The second is, well utterly bizarre - we have a local plan process to designate areas for housing and boundaries are boundaries. That process involved wide consultation with the public, community councils and others. It decided the boundary for housing, but councillors in this case and without good reason overruled it.

I proposed that we support our planning officials and reject the application. All other councillors present (except Cllr Milligan who declared an interest) decided otherwise and I could not find a seconder.

This is where the story gets interesting.

Getting planning permission for a site not in the local plan for development - particularly in the countryside - can be a highly lucrative business. Without permission, the land value is quite low. With permission it can go sky high.

The developer for the Arniston site is a company called Pegasus Flooring, based at Dalhousie Business Park in Bonnyrigg. A little investigation (e.g. here) identifies a director and, as far as I understand, its owner, to be none other than James McHale (aka Seamus).

Those with long memories will recognise this name from the scandal surrounding the council's missing £37,500, meant to pay for a new car park at Bonnyrigg Rose Football Club but as far as we are aware, still missing (reminders here and here).

Now I don't know if anything untoward has been happening, and certainly have no hard evidence, but I doubt if I'm the only one who is puzzled by it all. And this is not the first time I have complained that applications for housing contrary to the local plan have been successful (see reference to Fordel application here), and they are far from isolated cases. So what on earth is going on?

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Building a reputation for destruction

At yesterday's Planning committee meeting of Midlothian Council, the contentious item was supposed to be the proposal for two small wind turbines at Springfield Farm near Leadburn (voted down, in the main by SNP councillors, despite my pleas for Midlothian to step up to the plate on our - and the SNP government's - carbon reduction targets).

However, it was an application for a hotel in the Pentland Hills Regional Park which troubled me more. Within the boundary of Hillend Country Park and in an area designated as an Area of Great Landscape Value, the site is also in the Pentland Hills Special Landscape Area in the proposed MLDP, "assessed as being of high value in terms of scenic quality, enjoyment and naturalness". The site includes a large number of mature trees and shrubs.

So on an elevated site, viewed from much of the Damhead area, what currently looks like a small woodland will be replaced by a three storey hotel and holiday chalets.

The response from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, referring to the woodland, is littered with phrases such as "should as much as possible be left intact" and "if possible, continuous strips of woodland should be retained". I won't be holding my breath.

Edinburgh Council's response asks what alternative sites had been assessed and discounted to justify the location in a sensitive site (none as far as I know), pointing out that the tree removal "will impact adversely on the character of the landscape", suggesting any tree replacement would be "a long term prospect" and highlighted the site's prominence, with concern about lighting from within the site. You could argue that Edinburgh Council is unlikely to welcome new hotels just across the border, but you can't argue that the points they make are not valid.

It seems that the rationale behind Planning officials recommending approval is that the hotel would 'complement' the adjacent Snowsports centre. In what way? It suggests there is a need for people to be accommodated close to the centre - despite it lying beside the terminus of the number 4 bus which takes all of 25 minutes to arrive from Haymarket.

At the Planning meeting, councillors repeatedly referred to 'demand' for a hotel. The original application included four houses on part of the site (since amended to holiday chalets). If the project is expected to be profitable, why the need to boost its income with spinoff houses? More importantly, if there is clear demand for a hotel close to the Snowsports centre, whatever happened to applications 09/00614/PPP (hotel and restaurant/bar, approved 19 June 2012) and 10/00529/DPP (hotel, approved February 2011)? Both sites are a matter of yards from this one, in one case directly across the road. Both, it should be said, are in much less sensitive sites and, crucially, neither development has been progressed.

During the debate, one Labour councillor said he was "absolutely amazed that anyone would oppose this application". The SNP, with one notable exception, fell in to line, bleating about how this was needed to boost the local economy. As I pointed out when I voted against adopting the proposed Midlothian Local Development Plan, the council is fond of using the term 'sustainable development' while either not knowing what it means, or willingly setting out to deceive. It is only when applications like this come forward that it gets found out.

When it came to the vote, I proposed rejection of the application. To his credit, SNP councillor Andrew Coventry seconded my proposal. Every other councillor, Labour, SNP and Independent, voted for approval.

Whether it's small scale wind turbines or building in sensitive areas, someone needs to explain to Midlothian's Planning Department and its councillors either what sustainable development means, or remind them they should be adhering to it.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Return of the one party state?

As I've often reminded people, Midlothian used to be called "the one party state". A legacy from its mining community days, for a while Labour had 17 of the 18 councillors, held on to its Westminster constituency - solidly - since its inception in 1955 and likewise the Holyrood constituency before it was split in 2011.

All that started to change in 2011, when both the 'Midlothian North and Musselburgh' and 'Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale' Holyrood constituencies went SNP. Labour then lost control of the council in 2012 and now this.

Just two General Elections ago in 2005, Labour and the Liberal Democrats picked up over 70% of the Midlothian vote between them. Ten years later it was just 32.5%. Who knows where we'll be ten years from now.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The political landscape in Midlothian is changing so fast, and unless those lessons are quickly learned, history will indeed repeat itself, but not in the way many people think.

Midlothian is in danger of becoming a one-party state once again, this time in the colours of the SNP, but would that be good for democracy, or for the people of Midlothian?

In November of last year, it did look like a Labour revival might be on the cards when Kenny Young won the Midlothian East by-election, but as I wrote in a previous blog that particular campaign was unusual. The result this month seems to confirm it's business as usual for Labour's decline in one of its heartlands.

In an article in today's Scotland on Sunday, former Labour MP Ian Davidson put Scottish Labour's decline down to the four 'C's - complacency, conservatism, cronyism and careerism. Is that also true in Midlothian? I don't know for sure, but I would certainly say complacency has played a big part.

I still fail to grasp why the Labour group on the council continues to boycott two committees after three years. The Business Transformation Steering Group (comprising 2 SNP, 2 Labour, 1 Green) was set up to oversee a programme of change to address the budget gap over the next few years. So that committee now sits with only three councillors, and the official opposition intends to play no part in addressing how we provide much needed services with greatly reduced income and rising costs.

The Safer Communities Board (previously Police & Fire liaison) also sits without its two Labour representatives. Why? Apparently because they don't agree with those services being restructured by the Scottish Government. For the record, neither do I agree with it, but we have to play with the cards we're dealt, I'm afraid.

Instead of building trust and acting like a potential ruling administration, Labour continues to act with a 'Labour good, Nats bad' rhetoric which does nothing for politics, and it does nothing for the people of Midlothian, whose interests we're all here to represent.

I had hoped for better from Kenny Young. Kenny is bright, he's young and he's articulate. He has potential. However, he too has adopted the tribal mentality of his peers with relish.

I don't know what Kenny learned from the bubble he worked in beside Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, but deleting Facebook comments and blocking people on Twitter just because they challenge your views is not the stuff of grown-up politics.

I am particularly disappointed that he hasn't apologised for going into a Twitter frenzy over the Nicola Sturgeon/French consul alleged conversation when this has now been found to be a fabrication. Sometimes we screw up, Kenny. When we do, admit it, apologise and move on. Saying nothing and blocking people who challenge you doesn't look good.

I certainly don't want to go back to the days of the one-party state, of whatever colour, where all parliamentary representatives belong to one party - with huge majorities; where that party runs the council with a significant overall majority; and where huge numbers of voters feel there's no-one there to represent them.

What's clear from this month's election result - across the UK - is that people want change. And people want politicians to change too. What they don't want is to replace one lot of complacent politicians with another.