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?