Highland Greens have charged The Highland Council with concocting a circular argument to justify its staging of last September’s Hearing to consider the Stratton and East Seafield planning application while the Highland-wide Development Plan (HwDP) process was, and still is underway.
In their scrutiny of the Hearing’s documentation, Highland Greens have discovered (see notes 1 and 2) that the Council’s rationale for granting outline planning permission principally rested, not on the merits of the application itself, but on the Council’s own Planning sub-committee’s previously-taken decision to publish a draft development plan which, at the time of the Hearing, had not even then been released for public consultation!
Donnie MacLeod, a Scottish Green Party list candidate for Highlands and Islands, denounced the Council’s action, saying:
“The LibDem-led Council papers clearly record that the application was inconsistent with the existing Inverness Local Plan, and that the Council were on extremely shaky ground in staging the Hearing. To circumvent this inconvenience, the Council devised a circular argument to proceed.
“We now know that at the Hearing the Council identified its own Planning sub-committee’s decision, taken just a month previously to issue a consultation paper on the proposed development plan, as the ‘most important material consideration regarding policy and the development framework for this site’. Then, quite blatantly and unashamedly, the Council claimed that there were ‘material considerations’ to disregard the existing Local Plan in order to justify their granting outline planning permission.
“The draft HwDP has still to be finally agreed by the Council. The draft Plan’s provisions for East Inverness could yet be significantly changed or thrown out all together. In either event, what would then be the status of the planning permission?
“In effect, The Highland Council invented the evidence to justify awarding planning permission. This is nothing less than a self-justifying subterfuge. It is an affront to democracy, and truly staggering.
“We have invited the Scottish Government to intervene in this outrageous and disgraceful affair, and declare the Council’s decision to award outline planning permission null and void.”
(1) The Council official’s report to The Council Hearing on 15 September, Paragraph 9.3 reads:
‘The proposals are contrary to the adopted Inverness Local Plan. However, the HwLDP Proposed Plan, approved by PED [the Council’s Planning, Environment and Development sub-committee] on 11 August 2010, now forms the most important material consideration [our emphasis] regarding policy and the development framework for this site. Any permission must therefore accord with the HwLDP policy and framework with regard to phasing and infrastructure provision.’
(2) The minutes of the Council’s September 2010 Hearing record that: “It was confirmed that, while the development had been assessed as being inconsistent with the policies of the existing Inverness Local Plan, there were material considerations which justified a departure from that policy document.”
(3) Since the Hearing, Highland Greens have been calling upon the Scottish Government to revoke The Highland Council’s decision to stage the Hearing, and thereby withdraw the outline planning permission granted at that Hearing. Our most recent approach to the Scottish Government (letter to Sir Peter Housden) which highlights ‘the most important material consideration’ section of the Council’ official’s report:
Sir Peter Housden
The Scottish Government
St. Andrew’s House
2 March 2011
LETTER BY EMAIL ONLY
Dear Sir Peter
HIGHLAND-WIDE DEVELOPMENT PLAN – EAST INVERNESS
SPECIAL HEARING OF THE HIGHLAND COUNCIL – 15 SEPTEMBER 2010
LAND AT STRATTON AND EAST SEAFIELD, INVERNESS, NEW TOWN COMPRISING TOWN CENTRE, HOUSING AND COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT
I am writing on behalf of my party to:
- express our extreme disappointment with Stewart Stevenson’s letter of 9 December 2010 to Patrick Harvie, and with David Liddell’s earlier letter (direct to us) of 18 October 2010;
- invite you to reconsider whether The Highland Council has overstepped the mark in formally considering the Stratton and East Seafield planning application while its own Highland-wide Development Plan (HwDP) process was, and still is, underway;
- invite the Minister to revoke The Highland Council’s decision to stage the Hearing, and thereby withdraw the outline planning permission granted at the Hearing.
We recognise that planning authorities are entitled to consider planning applications while development plans are still at the gestation stage. The core of our argument is that because of the magnitude (covering some 78·8 hectares) of the particular development under consideration, and – as a consequence – the development’s potential Highland-wide impact (see also below), this application for outline planning permission should not have been considered while the HwDP process was, and still is, underway; instead, it should only be considered once the development plan process has been completed.
Furthermore, we are far from satisfied that the Scottish Government fully understands our core concern. Both Mr Stevenson’s and Mr Liddell’s letters comment on The Highland Council’s handling and assessment of the planning merits of the planning application, and the number of the objections received. These factors are irrelevant (and in the case of the number of objections, wrong! The Council official’s report clearly states that both Community Councils, within whose boundaries this application falls, objected to the scheme; in addition, there were five objections, of which ours was one). The fundamental point is that the application should not have been considered ‘now’.
H&IGP specific concerns and objections
Our more specific concerns and objections are as follows:
- Main Issues report
The Highland Council’s Main Issues report (published August 2009) was quite unequivocal in its proposals for the East Inverness area. p16 states: “Some of the key issues for the East Inverness area are … to identify what level of development might be acceptable … before major improvements are required” (our emphasis). The public were then invited to comment on the Council’s ‘preferred option’ for the area. For the Council to consider this application prior to the HwDp process completion is wholly contrary to, and shows complete disregard for, the consultation process. By considering the Hearing in advance of the process’s completion, the Council was clearly set on pre-empting the outcome of the results of the final consultation before they had even been sought.
The application itself was publicly advertised on 17 April 2009.
- Inconsistent treatment of similar-scale sites
The Council has specifically ruled out consideration of the Tornagrain planning application, despite that application being of a similar magnitude and composition to this Stratton and East Seafield one. The Tornagrain application was advertised in late 2008/early 2009 – again before the publication of the Main Issues report. The only difference we can discern between the two applications, in terms of whether to consider them ‘now’, is the extremely tenuous ‘measure of [existing] local plan support’ for the Stratton and East Seafield application- see also below.
(the Tornagrain site is located a few miles further East, near Inverness airport)
In addition, a 2008 planning application for the development of a large, non-food retail park (adjacent to a major existing retail park, and hard-by the Stratton and East Seafield site) has yet to be considered by the Council.
- The alleged rationale of the Highland Council’s actions
The basis of the Council’s case t0 consider the application in advance of finalising the HwDP process was that its Planning, Environment and Development (PED) Committee, at its meeting on 11 August 2010, agreed that “all proposals in the A96 corridor [which includes East Inverness] which had a measure of adopted Local Plan support (in full or in part) may be determined in advance of the Local Development Plan Examination in line with updated guidance in the Proposed Plan’. Our understanding is that at least 75% of the total area covered by the application is designated under the existing local plan as green wedge, and that the remaining area includes ranges of farm buildings.
Furthermore, both Mr Stevenson’s and Mr Liddell’s letters state that the Council noted that there were ‘material considerations’ to justify granting permission. However, the Council official’s report to the Hearing (para 9.3) clearly states that ‘the HwLDP Proposed Plan, approved by PED on 11 August 2010, now forms the most important material consideration regarding policy and the development framework for this site’. In effect, the Council’s rationale for granting permission rested principally, not on the merits of the application, but on the Council’s own sub-committee’s previously-taken decision to adopt a not-yet final policy document, which had not even been released for public consultation! This is absurd.
All this hardly seems a sound basis to justify the Council’s action. We take great issue with the Council giving itself, in effect, blanket permission to do what it wants to in the A96 corridor (and thereby ignoring the provisions of the Main Issues report). And to classify the Stratton/East Seafield site as falling within this stated ‘existing measure of support’ criteria is tenuous in the extreme.
The key point here is that the inconsistency of the Council’s treatment in its consideration of these three applications makes total nonsense of the development plan process. The Council should either have considered all three applications ‘now’ or held them all over until the HwDP process was complete – but not take one during the process and not the other two.
Potential Highland-wide impact
We believe that this development (together with the many – though not all) of the proposals included in the Council’s draft HwDP for developing the wider East Inverness area could well drain already fragile existing communities across the Highlands of people and jobs. This concern is substantiated by the Council’s own data, which envisages £71·24 million of public and private investment being required for (the whole of) East Inverness. If realised, this sum would clearly be unavailable for investment across the wider Highlands.
Furthermore, the minutes of the Council’s Hearing record the planning applicants as having said: ‘The application represented a significant development for the future of Inverness and outlying areas as well (our emphasis)’.
On the basis of our concerns expressed above, The Highland Council’s decision to stage last September’s Hearing has ‘driven a coach and horses’ through the HwDP process. The Council has shown particular disregard for the ideals of the Scottish Government’s development plan process.
We therefore request that you invite the Minister to revoke The Highland Council’s decision to stage the Hearing, and thereby withdraw the outline planning permission granted at the Hearing.
If you wish, we would be happy to meet you and/or your colleagues here in Inverness, to discuss this issue.
I am copying this letter to Patrick Harvie MSP.
Highlands and Islands Green Party