Fairness in Planning?

It is 21 months since an application from Miller Homes was put forward to build on Sheep Ings Farm field in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. Its name comes from an Old Norse word “Ings” meaning “water meadow” and the site is surrounded by an area called Gregory Springs, in other words ‘low lying wet land’. For thousands of years this has acted as a natural amphitheatre for collecting and storing water from the 900 acres of woodlands which form a horseshoe of surrounding hillsides, which are scattered with becks and watercourses. On the opposite side of the meadow, and within a few metres is the River Calder, so effectively the proposed site and the existing homes are sandwiched between the hills and the river. When the River Calder floods it closes the road running along the front of the proposed site. Local residents are dismayed because the water runoff from the field in a storm situation adds to river flooding and also floods their homes. They feel the water meadow is their only mitigation.

Flooding from the river, which used to be infrequent, is a regular occurrence, several times a year is usual now, and is getting even more frequent, clearly as a result of climate change. There have been houses on the riverside for 90+ years but we were told they would never get planning permission now.  It is notable that the opposite river bank and surrounding fields are functional flood plains. The area is also down- river of Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, which are well known flood risk areas in the Calder valley, and mitigation measures in progress there seem to be pushing the problem further down river.

Local residents are the experts on how the river and field behave in bad weather but their concerns are being ignored. We all know that water finds its own level so even though raising ground and floor levels may help new houses to avoid flooding in habitable areas, the water has to go somewhere and that will include houses surrounding the site, which already have issues.  Our Hydrologist has said that it is likely to be impossible that residents will be able to access or leave their new homes in a flood. Locals joke that a dingy should be sold with each property! The flood risk assessment carried out on behalf of the developer was woeful. It is full of inaccuracies and errors including the fact that the access is in Flood Zone 2 when it has now been conceded as being in Flood Zone 3, and worryingly downplays allowances for climate change. Even the main application document had too many errors, some very basic, to catalogue here but included the wrong name of the river, some clear “cut and paste” from another un-related area and the wrong red-line boundary!

The planning department say that, as the site was allocated in the Local plan adopted in February 2019, it is approved in principle for housing. Our contention is that although it was allocated, erroneously in our opinion, it doesn’t mean it must be approved automatically. The NPPF is quite clear when it talks about flood risks and how there must be no added risk to existing residents. The access road is in Flood Zone 3 and the body of the site is currently in Flood Zones 1 and 2. There has been no sequential test done on a site basis in Kirklees and subsequently, no exception test either.

The application was made in May 2019 and then went to committee after strong opposition from local residents who had formed an action group called Granny Lane Area Action Group (GLAAG) supported by a larger organisation called Save Mirfield, formed more than 20 years ago. Funds were raised to pay for professional consultants including a Hydrologist (Flood risk assessor) and Planning Lawyer. It eventually went before committee, recommended for approval, on December 19th, 2019. It was made clear that they wanted to clear their desks before Christmas. One committee member thought that it was “worth the risk” and another claimed to be worried that if he voted against he would “get into trouble” as it is an allocated site!  There was no drainage plan, no emergency access discussion, indeed hardly any discussion at all. So it was approved. In 2020, we refused to give up and continued producing more evidence why it should not be approved and therefore final permissions were not granted. After we threatened legal action, it went back to committee again in October 2020 but was deferred because a video had come to light showing the extent of the flooding the previous February. The committee members and the planners had been sent the video. After deferring in October it was brought back to committee on January 27th this year.  We were all primed and ready to go but the planners told the committee that they wanted a deferral again to address some concerns about house sizes. They referred to the NDSS guidance. The interesting thing is that later on the same agenda, another application was passed although some concerns about the house sizes surfaced but were glossed over. It is hardly surprising that local people wonder if the house size concerns, never brought up before, were only a “smokescreen” to allow something to go on in the background, or fear that the committee would vote to refuse.

The video they saw shows a huge amount of water coming off the site and flowing in the direction of the river. The planners say it is solely due to blockages in a beck behind the site but little or no evidence has been produced in support. Now they intend to discharge water across land directly on to a junction nearby which already floods so that will exacerbate the situation there too.

Local people struggle to comprehend why the planners are so determined to push this application through. Even our legal team and drainage experts cannot understand it either. Could they be so worried about the developer lodging an appeal against a refusal that they are willing to push ahead?  The prospect of such an appeal is not a material planning consideration but it may as well be.

Fairness in planning is an oxymoron. When will the government recognise that local people should be able to appeal against an approval? The Raynsford Review provided a road map. What a pity it is being ignored. We should be going back to committee at the end of February. That will be the fourth occasion. We live in hope that a sensible decision to refuse the application will be forthcoming from the committee.

Cheryl Tyler is the Chairman of Save Mirfield, a community group of over 900 members fighting to “keep the field in Mirfield”.

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