Planning Committee 30th May 2013 (Wirral Council): Vote on new play area in Leasowe splits Planning Committee 7:6
If there was ever a part of a meeting that sums up both the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Wirral Council, item 12 (and its appendix) would serve very well.
It all started as usual with an officer saying it would’ve been decided by officers under their delegated powers if Cllr Lewis hadn’t asked for it to be decided by the Planning Committee (however with a qualifying petition against it and nine letters of objection it would’ve been decided by the Planning Committee anyway). The officer continued by stating that the planning application was for a children’s play area comprising five items and dated back to a 1997 agreement with a developer building a new housing estate. The area proposed for the play area was part of an area of open space established for the residents, residents had concerns, but environmental health had no objections to the proposal despite the area being a flood risk.
A representative of the petitioners, Steven Lindsay of 5 Aintree Close thanked the Planning Committee for attending the site visit on the day before the meeting. He pointed out it had been sixteen years since the original agreement for the play area had been signed and that since then many families had grown up, he referred to a survey conducted eighteen months ago of one hundred and forty-seven properties. Ninety percent had been against the play area, six and half percent for and three and a half percent hadn’t expressed a preference. Mr. Lindsay referred to another brand-new play area nearby which was well used by children and a further play area that had been built as the result of a section 106 agreement with a developer.
The concerns of the petitioners were of vandalism, theft of the play area equipment, antisocial behaviour and people gathering there who were not from the area. Another concern was that the site of the proposed play area was too close to adjoining properties and that a nearby play area had had equipment stolen. Two other play areas at a distance of 200m and 300m were nearby as well as Leasowe Common.
Miss Jackie Smallwood, of Wirral Council’s Parks and Countryside Service addressed the committee on behalf of Wirral Council. She said that when the section 106 application had been granted that the policy had been twenty metres from property boundaries, however the policy had since changed to ten metres to property boundaries and twenty metres from the facade of buildings.
Cllr Ian Lewis agreed with the petitioner Mr. Lindsay and said it was unusual to have a planning application for a play area. He pointed out it had been sixteen years since the section 106 agreement and that since then they’d spent £75,000 on a play area as part of the Playbuilder scheme whose catchment area included this estate. He pointed out that in a further change that 23,000m² of the public open space had been sold, leaving 5,000m² and that the appendix pointed out that as a condition of the planning permission that the developer was to provide 60m² of open space per a property. He asked why the land left was well below the recommended limit of 60m²? In a survey of every home in the development by Taylor Wimpey, ninety percent of residents had been against it. As Wirral Council was the applicant, he said that they had nothing to lose and that they had to recognise the cost of maintaining a particularly small play area which was not wanted as Wirral Council would be taking on a further liability. He asked the Planning Committee to refuse the application. He passed around details of the sale of some of the public open space.
Cllr Elderton said that the petitioner and ward councillor had shown that times had changed, that the site visit had shown it was in an established residential area and the evidence of the petitioner showed that the residents would prefer not to have it developed as a play area. He suggested that they refuse the application on the grounds that it was no longer necessary. Cllr Elderton also pointed out the fact that as the Council was the applicant that it couldn’t sue itself and that they should go along with what residents want.
Matthew Davies said that the original permission (OUT/1994/6791/D) had been granted sixteen years ago and that the Planning Committee in August 2011 had revisited the issue. He said that the developer had paid money for the installation of a play area, which had been approved in 1997 and 2011, therefore the play area could be erected under permitted development, however the developer had wanted the details to be considered as a standalone item. If they refused the planning permission, they would have to reimburse £50,000 plus interest which would come to £75,000. Officers had assessed the existing play areas and felt that they were not acceptable or accessible as they were separated from the development by busy roads.
Cllr Steve Foulkes said that the training that councillors on the Planning Committee had received meant that they should consider each planning application on its merits, without any consideration as to the applicant. He said he hadn’t been a member of the Planning Committee back in 2011 and that whilst a survey had taken place that they had to be ultra careful if they were turning it down for this reason. Cllr Foulkes pointed out that the nature of the estate might change, that it was a “viable planning application” and that the play area “might well be seen as an asset”. He said he understood there were fears and pessimism, but if they went down that route then there wouldn’t be any play areas. Cllr Foulkes said that it was a bit of a cop-out that the Council wouldn’t appeal its own decision, that he had seen the site and location and that areas that were well looked at and overseen didn’t tend to attract antisocial behaviour. Cllr Foulkes asked “Is it a good thing?” and then answered his own question with the answer being “probably yes”.
Cllr Simon Mountney said it was reminding him of the George Orwell novel 1984 and that [Cllr Foulkes] was sounding like the Politburo. He pointed out that the residents wanted them to spend the money elsewhere and enforcing a play area on them was not right. Cllr Mountney referred to the “massive consultation”, the result had told them “please don’t give us” [a play area] with the public telling us [the Planning Committee] “thanks but no thanks”. Cllr Mountney said that they couldn’t make an assumption over the nature of the estate over twenty years. He received applause for his points.
Cllr Wendy Clements said that at 4.9 in the report, that before development progressed Wirral Council would have to consult the local community, therefore public opposition to the scheme was a material consideration in determining the planning application.
Cllr Elderton said he agreed with Cllr Wendy Clements, that times had changed and they had to make sure it was appropriate. He pointed out that things had moved on from sixteen years ago and that he’d been on the Planning Committee in 2011. Cllr Elderton said they should consider the current position rather than bury their heads in the sand. He said that he didn’t like to see councillors overturn the will of the local community to merely support something from sixteen years ago and that wasn’t the reason why he’d become a councillor. Cllr Elderton said they should support the aspirations of all local communities.
Matthew Davies said that the appendix had come as a report to the Planning Committee in 2011 and that they’d heard the comments from petitioners and Cllr Ian Lewis then, which was more recent than sixteen years ago. He cautioned them against refusing permission and that the permission granted sixteen years ago could take twenty, thirty or forty years before it was built. Mr. Davies said that as it had been approved it could be built without further consent which they needed to be aware of.
Cllr Mountney said they were there to support residents. The Chair, Cllr Bernie Mooney said they were there to uphold planning policy and that the policy was still the same.
Cllr Mountney asked who was going to build the playground? Matthew Davies said that as the developer had made the contribution that the Council would put the play equipment in place. Cllr Mountney expressed concern that they were “riding roughshod over the public”. The Chair, Cllr Bernie Mooney said it had to be agreed and that the only reason it was back here was to approve the type, amount and the age group.
Cllr Foulkes asked if it was refused, would the old planning permission take precedence leaving it as a decision for the Executive [Cabinet]?
Cllr Hayes referred to the 60m² of open space per a resident and asked a question about commuted sums and the section 106 agreement. Matthew Davies answered that it was something to consider when drafting the section 106 agreement whether or not to accept commuted sums, which could be used to upgrade existing facilities, however when it was drafted in 1997 they decided not to go for a commuted sum. He said the fact the land was sold had no bearing as the green space and play area were separate issues.
Cllr Muspratt said it was quite compact and had concerns about the guidelines on different age groups mixing. Matthew Davies said there were guidelines but they were outside the planning remit. He said that colleagues in parks and leisure tended to put an upper age limit of twelve on play areas as this was when people tended to stop using them.
Cllr Brightmore said that the residents were asking them to refuse the application. Matthew Davies said they could refuse this application as it was a standalone application, therefore they could refuse this specific play area. Cllr Wittingham referred to the petition of twenty-nine households but said he would be uncomfortable to refuse the application as it would mean children would have to cross Reeds Lane.
Cllr Stuart Wittingham moved accepting the planning permission and Cllr Joe Walsh seconded it. Cllr Foulkes said he didn’t enjoy councillors trying to make a fool of him. He said that he didn’t like being set up or being pilloried.
The Chair asked for a vote of those in favour of the planning permission. Cllr Stuart Kelly, Cllr Bernie Mooney, Cllr Brightmore, Cllr Christina Muspratt, Cllr Joe Walsh, Cllr Stuart Wittingham and Cllr Irene Williams vote for (7).
The other councillors (6) voted against, so the planning application was approved by 7 votes to 6.