This is a matter that has been ongoing for some time. The Council has received a great deal of correspondence about Hare Hatch Sheeplands during this time. Therefore we thought that it would be useful to provide a full explanation of our position and why the Council finds itself having to take planning enforcement action.
Sheeplands has approved planning permission for the following:
- Nursery (plant growing)
- Coffee Shop
- Farm Shop with a combined retail space of around 900 sq m
Hare Hatch Sheeplands operates in a competitive environment. The owner of the nursery, in order to compete,has increased the retail space on his site to approximately 10,000 sq m, a tenfold increase. He has done this by converting disused greenhouses into retail space and leasing the space out to companies selling products that are not permitted to operate in the greenbelt. All of this has been done without any planning permission. This only came to light following an application to redevelop the site which necessitated an audit of the operations at the site.
As a direct result of complaints about the misuse of the greenbelt land and the audit, an enforcement notice was issued requiring the owner to stop these unlawful activities and return the site to uses allowed by the policy protecting the greenbelt. There were 17 planning breaches covered in the enforcement notice. Recognising the sensitivity around the financial situation and potential job losses the owner was given 18 months to comply with the enforcement notice to allow those retail companies who were leasing space to find alternative locations. The normal length of time for compliance of an enforcement notice is around six months.
The owner lodged an appeal against the enforcement notice, and at the same time submitted a retrospective planning application to legitimise the extra 9,000 sq m of retail floorspace. This retrospective application was refused and the owner appealed against this decision as well. The Public Inquiry to consider the appeals was postponed twice at the owner’s request in order to allow extra time for a negotiated settlement to be found. A third date (May 2013) was also postponed because the council’s lead planning officer was seriously ill.
In April 2014 the owners withdrew their appeal against the enforcement notice and agreed to try and reach a negotiated solution with the council. This involved the removal of a number of the unauthorised activities at the site. However, whilst this was going on the owner was adding yet more unlawful retail operations without planning permission, an act that was always going to exacerbate the situation.
The Council then investigated whether a “certificate of lawful use” could be issued for the unauthorised retail activities: if they could be demonstrated to have been operating continuously for more than 10 years they would then be legally classified as being “established”. Unfortunately, despite the owner being given ample opportunity to provide such evidence, what was provided was insufficient to make the case so the application had to be refused. This refusal of the certificate application has now been appealed by the owners of the site and we are waiting for a date for a public inquiry to consider this appeal from the Planning Inspectorate.
The council does recognise that staff and customers of the business are upset to hear the news that we have come to a point where it has to continue to enforce against the unlawful development at the site.
The council supports planned development across the borough, in areas that are identified for development. This approach is set out in government policy and at a local level, through local plans. These documents also set out areas that should be protected from further development and contain policies to assist this. Hare Hatch Sheeplands is in a location requiring protection from development. Despite this, the development at the site has expanded without the necessary planning permission.
As addressed above, the council has tried to work with the owner to find a mutually acceptable solution. Retaining the current range of retail on the site is not acceptable in a greenbelt location. Despite exhaustive efforts led by local elected councillors to seek a compromise, the situation has been frustrated by the owner’s unwillingness to reduce the activity and development at the site. Rather, the activity grows, and as one concession moves on, it is quickly replaced by another, leading to further unauthorised development.
On 8 October 2015, two planning applications relating to the site were received by the Council for the proposed change of use of land and building to a children’s play area and recreational farm and for the proposed change of use of part of an existing building to retail.
While the Council has always stated that it would work with Mr Scott to negotiate an acceptable proposal, this has always been on the basis that the site should be looked at comprehensively. Given the complexity of the site and planning history, ad hoc, piecemeal applications will not enable a satisfactory solution to be achieved. The Council has always advised Mr Scott that he should work with us to agree a proposal that would be mutually acceptable. These latest two applications where not discussed with council officers before they were submitted. Had they been, then we could have advised Mr Scott about how he should proceed in line with previous advice. The two recent applications relate to small proportions of the site and there was no indication in the application as to the access arrangements, parking provision or any relationship to the rest of the site. While a play area and the recreational farm could be acceptable uses, the submission does not reflect the advice that Mr Scott has been given in good faith by the Council to try and reach an acceptable solution for the whole site, rather than separate elements that Mr Scott is seeking to develop.
As it has been said, some of the activities at the site are authorised and the business could also continue to grow and sell plants in the glasshouses. Furthermore, a planning application could be submitted for the whole site and include the retention of some uses that could be acceptable to the Council. The business could also propose other uses which the Council could support and which are acceptable in the greenbelt. However, it is up to the owner of the site to submit an application that addresses the whole site and the Council continues to be willing to work with Mr Scott to allow him to submit an application that the Council could support.
If Mr Scott was really serious about entering into meaningful negotiation, we contest that he could have submitted an application for a mutually acceptable scheme following detailed pre- application advice and negotiation. Such an application would have regard to the whole site and all of the issues created by the proposed development. As this did not happen, the Council considered both these applications and reached a formal decision, which was to decline to determine these applications, on 13 January 2016.
The Council must look at the appropriateness of the land use, and not the personal circumstances of the owner. The current business is operating as a retail facility and if we do not enforce against this, it would set a precedent. If a planning application for another retail use or type of development was submitted, it would prove more difficult for the Council to refuse this. If the Council did not take action against this use, it would seriously undermine its ability to protect the greenbelt from inappropriate development. We must therefore continue to take action to secure compliance with the enforcement notice especially in light of the expansion of the business that has continued despite these notices.
Over the last few years a number of people have commented that the Council is being unreasonable in its action and suggested that it has ‘double standards’ in enforcing against Hare Hatch Sheeplands but not against other garden centres in the area such as Wyevale Garden Centre. As explained, this is not the case as the planning circumstances relating to these two sites are very different. Wyevale has a lawful planning use as a garden centre which has been established for many years and there are no unauthorised activities at the site to the best of the Council’s knowledge. Hare Hatch Sheeplands does not have a lawful garden centre use but a use as a nursery for growing plants. The uses at the site that do not comply with this horticulture use are unlawful with the exception of the café, farm shop and butchers.
While the Council has received a petition and emails supporting the retention of the business, it has also received complaints about the unauthorised nature of site. We have a duty to uphold its policies and to enforce against unlawful development across the borough. As often the case with planning related issues, there are people who support development and those who do not. The Council has to act as fairly as possible in line with national and local policy but inevitably, this does mean that sometimes, people feel that their views and requirements are not met.