LETTER - Where was the harm?

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PAST involvement with the sharp end of planning decisions makes me somewhat hesitant to lob rocks at those who have to make them. Choices are often constrained by policies that are beyond your control; in many cases, someone is going to be aggrieved, and it is often the case that the best and most just decision is not the most popular.

All the more reason, though, to make sure that decisions are carefully made and on a sound basis.

In reporting the refusal of an application by Islamabad’s Restaurant, the Express detailed a committee decision which showed the precise opposite of thoughtful decision making.

I have some sympathy with committee members who get wound up by retrospective applications (like this) which contradict previous decisions of the council. It can, indeed, be a way of ‘making a mockery of the planning system’.

But in this case, the mockery has been self-inflicted: a perfectly acceptable renovation was originally turned down on the sort of spurious grounds that gives planning a bad name. One problem that can arise in development control is the inability to see the wood for the trees - because so many planning issues are big and intractable, there is a temptation to get bogged down in the minutiae of design guidance (which is only that) - rather than looking at the whole picture and the over-riding question of ‘What harm?’. A pity that the original decision wasn’t appealed - it is clear that the notion that refurbishment would cause significant harm to the locality would have been impossible to substantiate.

The policy grounds for the refusal were essentially based on two prongs, namely - “proposals shall:

1. respect and where appropriate enhance the character of the locality ...

2. .. have no significant detrimental impact on ... amenity ..”

The fact that there were no objections to the development, and that all three local councillors supported it, clearly suggests that there is no detrimental impact on the neighbourhood’s amenity.

Even more tellingly, in terms of the visual impact, the neutral Civic Society was sufficiently impressed by the renovation to award it the prize for best public house, restaurant or cafe bar in the 2010 Design Awards! This reflected a general view in the neighbourhood that the owner had succeeded beyond expectation in tidying up a dingy corner of the blighted Jacobs Well Lane. Rather different from the officer’s report, which did not mention this relevant background.

Even if you weren’t overly impressed by the shop front, you’d be hard pushed to establish significant harm.

Faced with this, one might have expected the committee to take the opportunity to rectify the original bad decision, even if it meant swallowing the retrospective nature of the application. After all, it is the outcome that counts, and the issue of it being retrospective is not a legitimate consideration in reaching a decision. What did somebody once say about it being advisable to stop digging when you’re in a hole?

Rick Hayward

Westfield Terrace