The latest planning application by the EF International language school [correction: EF International Academy UK Ltd. – see comment below] to redevelop their Cotuit Hall site on Pullen’s Lane went to the East Area Planning Committee (EAPC) last Wednesday (8 November). The city’s planning officers’ recommendation was to approve the application.
However, the full Committee papers barely mentioned the Headington Neighbourhood Plan (HNP) and it was not at all obvious that the Plan’s policies had been taken into account. After local councillors intervened a supplementary note was presented to the Committee on the day. This note examined all the relevant HNP policies and advised they were all complied with. Two local groups spoke against the application, which was subjected to a thorough examination, and EAPC turned the application down by a 4-2 [correction: 5-3 – see comment below] vote with one abstention.
The minutes of the meeting are now public on the Council website; I’ve also extracted the text and uploaded it here. The minutes record the reasons the Committee refused the application; there are several, including four HNP policies where the Committee went against the officers and concluded they were not complied with. These are:
- GSP2 Provision of green space within developments
- GSP4 Protection of the setting of the site
- CIP1 Development to respect existing local character
- CIP4 Protecting important assets
Full details of these policies are in the Neighbourhood Plan.
Ruth Wilkinson has reported that Councillors are being bombarded with emails from EF staff asking for the application to be called in to the Planning Review Committee (PRC).
All councillors are being deluged with emails from staff at EF asking for the refusal of the Cotuit Hall application to be called into PRC
— Ruth Wilkinson (@RuthWilk) November 10, 2017
It seems to me quite likely that it will be called in and the PRC will overturn the decision. They will grant permission because they don’t want to get into a costly appeal process. If it’s not called in I think we can assume EF will appeal anyway. Either way it will be a good indication of the City’s commitment to the NP, and if it comes to appeal, of the status of the NP in the Inspector’s eyes. I’ve read that Inspectors elsewhere have supported Neighbourhood Plans and rejected appeals which would overturn them.
However, compliance with these particular policies will always be a matter of judgement and there is a weakness in the planning system which is easy to exploit. Planning permission is often granted with conditions which the developer has to meet within a specified timescale. It is usually delegated to officers to decide if the condition has been met: the developer (or their consultants) prepares a document, submits it to the Council and it is nodded through with little scrutiny, however good or bad the document may be. I’ll stick my neck out and forecast this is what will happen here: the application will be called in; the PRC will grant permission with conditions which they can claim will satisfy the various policy requirements; there will be a lull; documents addressing some of the conditions will be prepared, submitted and approved with almost no scrutiny; for other conditions the developers will request and be granted a variation of conditions which lets them avoid compliance; the development will go ahead more-or-less as it now stands and no benefit will have been gained for the local community and environment.
To call in the application needs twelve councillors to request it by 5pm next Tuesday (14 November). So for now we wait and see.
On a more positive note the city’s planning paperwork is being changed to explicitly include the Headington Plan where relevant, with instructions that the Plan’s policies must be given full consideration and weight.