Sunday, 8 June 2014

How Planning works in Midlothian

I sometimes wonder why Midlothian Council bothers with a Local Development Plan. Perhaps it's because it has to, I imagine. Because whenever the sniff of development appears before our councillors, it might as well not exist.

The most worrying example was Planning Committee's decision on Cauldhall Opencast mine, where even Planning Officers recommended acceptance, even though the area concerned was not designated for mineral exploration or extraction in the plan (though the exact boundaries of the proposed mine curiously appear in the draft plan, at the time still at the consultation stage). When I asked why officials were recommending something which contravened the Local Plan, I was criticised by fellow councillors for suggesting officials were not doing their job. Surely they should have been asking the same question as I.

Despite coal mining not being one of the seven key economic sectors identified in the Midlothian Economic Development Framework, councillors argued for acceptance on the basis of the jobs Cauldhall would bring (which is not a Planning consideration, and anyway something I disputed, given the number of workers laid off by Scottish Coal when it went into administration). Tourism, however, is one of the key sectors, yet Cauldhall will be seen from many vantage points across the county! So perhaps I should also be asking why we have an Economic Development Framework when councillors seem so keen to ignore that as well.

In two days' time, the Scottish Government is expected to announce that its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be missed for the third year running - so why did the SNP Council Leader (of all people) propose the motion that Cauldhall should be approved?

At the most recent Planning Committee meeting on 27 May, we considered an outline application for up to 60 houses at Fordel, outside Dalkeith. Officers this time recommended refusal as the area was not included for development on the current or draft plan. It is also nearly a mile from the nearest bus route, along an unlit track (councillors argued "if we build the houses, buses will come" - yes, and on what planet?). The site was described as Brownfield (on the site visit, I would say half the site is very much Greenfield with hedgerows and trees in evidence). I proposed refusal but as usual I lost the vote.

When a Planning application is refused, an appeal may be lodged by the applicant. This is determined by the Local Review Body (LRB), on which I sit. Usually, a site visit takes place prior to the meeting and only those councillors attending the site visit are allowed to take part in the decision.

Some degree of flexibility from the strict regulations regarding planning decisions can be expected at LRB and in general, common sense prevails. For example, I've often found myself supporting appeals against refusal to install double glazing units in conservation areas, provided they look reasonable in the context of their surroundings.

At last week's LRB meeting, however, the 'Development at all costs' mantra reared its head again amongst my fellow councillors. This resulted in a decision to bulldoze around 500 square metres of maturing woodland beside the Butlerfield Industrial Estate, despite advice from Planning officials that it would 'detract materially from the character and amenity of the area, contrary to the adopted Midlothian Local Plan Policy'.

Further, I queried why councillors were not advised of the Biodiversity impact of losing this. As usual, I was greeted with blank looks.

Probably because Midlothian no longer has a Biodiversity officer, and as we heard at the following day's Special Performance, Review and Scrutiny Committee, when I asked, the person now responsible for biodiversity has other more pressing priorities.

The Main Issues Report for the draft local plan went out to consultation last year. It will be interesting to see how the council reacts to the overwhelming opposition to its proposals to effectively duplicate the A701 and give the green light to massive development in Straiton and that area of the Green Belt. Given Midlothian's past record, I expect that opposition to be ignored, and even if it's not, councillors will ensure that tarmac and concrete are the order of the day. And when I object, I'll lose the vote; and when I ask why, I'll get blank looks.

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