Press Article: Setting a dangerous precedent in planning decisions

November 14, 2022

Read our latest press article in last week's Suffolk Free Press by Sam Thornton.

The Sudbury Society’s aims are to protect our historic town’s past and to help shape its future. Both these tasks involve us heavily in town planning issues, often complex ones because the process involves Sudbury Town Council, Babergh District Council and, for some matters, Suffolk County Council.

Most powers lie with the District Council who are supposed to consult the Town Council, but to complicate matters further, some town councillors sit on the District Council and are members of its planning committee. This committee votes in favour or against recommendations from their professionally qualified planning officers.
Looming over them both are the many aspects of The National Planning Policy Framework which they are expected to comply with.

The Sudbury Society have watched with increasing concern how often the District Council’s planning committee and its officers disagree on important planning matters. While we understand that democratically-elected councillors should have the final decision, when they overrule professional advice that also complies with national planning policy guidelines, the results are decisions that are causing great harm to Sudbury and wasting very large amounts of public money.

Let’s look at three recent planning decisions and outcomes:
• the Conservative Club in New Street,
• the power generator on the Chilton estate and, most glaringly,
• the corner site at Belle Vue.

The rather attractive Victorian-era Conservative Club buildings lie in the Conservation Area and are ‘locally listed’, meaning that the planning committee should recognise this in any decision-making. The heritage and planning officers recommended that an application to demolish them should be refused but the committee went against this advice.

This sets the precedent that any Victorian building within Sudbury’s Conservation Area is at risk of demolition if a property developer is determined enough to push it through. Next, officers recommended that a gas-powered generator on a site designated for industrial use should be approved, and for sound planning and environmental reasons.
The committee turned it down on grounds that it would burn fossil fuel: a totally ill-informed stance as the plant’s purpose is to provide electricity on those occasions when renewable energy (mostly solar and wind) fails to keep the grid in balance. Without these plants there’s a risk of periodic black-outs.

The applicant’s appeal against the refusal has been successful, totally vindicating the officers’ position.
Finally, when the latest plans for retirement flats on the corner of Belle Vue came before planning committee councillors, it took six hours of debate before they refused them. (No matter that the architecture had been greatly improved after intervention by the Sudbury Society).

Again this was in the face of the planning officers’ advice, who intervened to explain that a decision to refuse needs to be based on sound grounds, otherwise (as with the gas generator) the applicant is likely to mount a successful appeal.

The reasons given: a) visual impact on the Conservation Area, b) loss of trees, and c) insufficient parking were advised to be ‘flimsy’, indeed so flimsy that if the appeal is successful the District Council may end up having to meet the costs of both sides. The money wasted in this long-running fiasco must be running into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

This does not augur well for the bus station and Hamilton Road wasteland, for which ambitious development plans have been drawn up (not for the first time) without any clear idea of where the funds are to come from.
For the protection of our town, what’s needed above all is a Neighbourhood Plan such as they have in Bury St Edmunds, Hadleigh, Long Melford and many other Suffolk towns and villages. These plans are binding on the planning process and are the only way to curtail all this wasteful to-ing and fro-ing.

Drafting a Neighbourhood Plan involves a lot of work and, knowing this, Sudbury Town Council have ducked the task. When the new Town Council convenes after the next elections, the Sudbury Society believes this should be one of their top priorities.

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