Why Dibley PC comes to mind.

I spent hours yesterday afternoon – getting more and more frustrated – watching a group of B&NES elected representatives acting like the fictionalised parish councillors of television’s Vicar of Dibley.

What made it worse for me is that you can’t comment on a live Zoom meeting – otherwise l would have let them have a few thoughts there and then. So, forgive me getting this off my chest now.

During the time l had my lap top open they had two items to consider. Upgrading an existing telecommunications mast to 5G capacity and an application to build a retirement village on the old Homebase site – between the existing Riverside residential development and Sainsbury’s.

There were many objections to both but I was interested to watch how elected councillors wriggle their way around the legal advice they are given by their lawyers and planners.

So determined were they to stop the new array – and despite the fact they had were repeatedly told the government wants 5G rolled out across the UK and that it IS considered safe – they fell back on the only thing they COULD object to and that was the new mast-head array was detrimental to the Green Belt and an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

I would hate to be the planner who has to go back to the telecommunications company with that result. Do they appeal or search for another site and we endure another lengthy planning meeting to discuss that. I also pity the other application that was mentioned as ‘being in the pipeline’ for the same area. They will no doubt get the same refusal.

What annoys me is that we all know the main reason they are refusing the application is on health grounds but have to give their objection legality by using the detrimental clause to cloak it.

I save most of my ire for the Guild Living application. An attempt to create a care community for those aged 65 and older. Backed by research involving the University of Bath, the idea is to let couples free up their old homes for the housing market and down-size into what the developers describe as’ a new type of retirement living development that puts older people back into the heart of communities.’

Artist impression

Guild Living wants to develop and then manage a mixed-use scheme that includes residential, health, wellbeing and leisure facilities. In all, up to 288 residences and suites with integrated nursing care and associated communal facilities and a fair bit of office space.

There would be landscaping and publicly accessible connections through the site to the river – from which it is set back – and new public spaces created.

Again the B&NES planners had recommended approval – subject to various conditions. Reading down the copious background information provided for councillors you become aware of just how much work went into preparing this application for its discussion by the committee.

It doesn’t hold back on listing all the objections but it does indicate how many meetings took place between the applicant and the city planners.

After much discussion – and a comfort break – members returned to eventually chicken-pick their way through the report and come up with a list of reasons why approval should not be given.

Take a breath….. ‘too concentrated a development mass, blocks too tall, threatens our World Heritage status, blocks views of the hillside, badly designed, wrong materials, too close to other houses, an affront to the listed Georgian crescent across the river AND the scheme includes no affordable housing.’

They were repeatedly told that this type of application doesn’t trigger the ‘affordable housing’ condition.

Now l am no planning expert but l did see in the planning notes that it was B&NES who had asked the developer’s architects to come up with a scheme which – l quote – ‘follows an industrial design aesthetic intended to reflect the site’s historic industrial uses; it deliberately avoids mimicking the ‘polite’ Georgian architecture found elsewhere in the city.’

And as far as that former industrial site on the Lower Bristol Road side of the Avon is concerned – just look how previously given permissions are turning part of it into a section of the Grand Canyon with buildings looming up on either side. Blink and you could be in Manhattan.

But, said one councillor, this isn’t Birmingham! Reflecting a general view that Bath has no other history than Georgian architecture and Roman remains. Maybe the architects should be braver. I am sure l heard Pei’s Pyramid at the Louvre used by a councillor as an example of former design bravado!

Various slides were shown – including a view across the river from Norfolk Terrace showing how the view of a green hillside would be lost to those living on the ground floor. I couldn’t help noticing that half that view had already been surrendered to the building of the Riverside residential development.

The look on the faces on the planning officials said it all. Increduality, as councillors hoisted the NIMBY flag and just objected to everything that came to mind – including the safety of hedgehogs and whether there would be enough car parking spaces for care workers coming from out of town to administer support to the occupants of this ‘nursing home’?!

Now l am just expressing a personal view of what transpired during that Zoom meeting – and l can see that there is much to discuss and revise before this scheme can be put through – but l just came away with the impression that whatever new development is planned in this area will be met with howls of no, no and no.

I am the first to champion the city’s heritage assets – our future prosperity will always depend to a large extent on what brings the tourists to Bath from all over the world – but we cannot allow the city to stagnate.

The central historical core should always be respected but the city must be allowed to move on. There will be a strong case for people to return to the centre – where empty shops will become living quarters – and why shouldn’t our seniors help revitalise it too! People who would free up homes for young families.

The development site

So the future faces the past across a river. Blocked views are one thing but a century or more ago it would have been smoke and industrial noise disturbing the peace and occupying the view.

At one point 170 people were watching these long-drawn-out proceedings on line. I wonder how many of them would now consider standing as a councillor. By golly, we need some younger people with brighter, more visionary ideas.

I even found myself – at one point – thinking it might be better if the planning and legal experts – made the decisions rather than the representatives of the people! At least the meetings would be quicker.

One final irony for me was – as Zoom meetings went – this one was plagued by technical hitches involving the strength of the signal allowing these councillors to meet and discuss. What a difference 5G would have made!

4 Comments

  1. .
    “Dibley PC” made me remember Officer or Patrolman Dibley of Top Cat fame! And then I checked and it’s Officer Dibble! 🙂

    re:
    ‘…a new type of retirement living development that puts older people back into the heart of communities.’

    This is in keeping with the effects of the current and future pandemics, and there will be, plus bringing a sense of community back to our country. Covid -19 has revealed the awful gap in our society, and we need future-proofing. Too many in power do not really represent the population of a town, city, county, region, even country. Some openly mock us that we think they should.

    What a great shame and loss that people like you, and others, cannot get a say but endure a passive zoom event that has already been mapped out, regardless.

    Alan

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  2. As someone who has been involved with development for over thirty years I have long ago come to the conclusion that the only sensible way for planning decisions to be made is by a panel of three professional inspectors, who live at least 100 miles away! It is so demoralising for applicants and planning officers alike to have vast amounts of time, effort and expense in producing professional applications completely ignored by councillors, the vast majority of whom do not appear to have read the officer’s report, never mind the reams of background information inevitably required by even fairly simple applications. A call-in to committee is a kiss of death for an applicant- you might just as well try to guess the wining lottery numbers as predict the outcome. In my experience planning officers generally do a very difficult job well – it must be soul destroying to have your professional recommendations ignored time after time. That is probably one of the main reasons why so many leave to pursue a career in the private sector. One effect of this local democracy at work is a large number of appeals against decisions, which takes up a huge amount of time and money – no doubt that will be the case here.

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  3. The main threat to hedgehogs round here, other than traffic, is badgers. It is a long time since I have seen a hedgehog here in Lansdown.

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  4. Can’t agree with you here on the Homebase site Richard. I think the planning committee has accurately grasped the fact that many Bath residents are fed up and quite angry with the present situation with housing. I don’t think the argument that older people downsizing will make more housing available holds water at all. The housing crisis isn’t about the lack of 3 bedroom houses, it’s about finding somewhere, anywhere to live if you’re young and living in an overpriced flat or commuting from Bristol. The houses ‘released’ into the market will not make up the shortfall in affordable housing. There aren’t any simple answers to this problem; it demands action on a number of fronts. Firstly we need to discourage the growth of HMO’s and force the universities to use their own resources and land to house their “income units” also known as students. Secondly the planning committee need to clamp down hard on party houses and weekend rentals such as Airbnb. Thirdly, it makes no sense to bring more potentially big users of GP and hospital services to the centre of Bath when these services are overwhelmed already. The Bath development plan is trying to encourage new small startup and tech businesses that need skilled and mainly younger staff. We also want to reduce traffic, so building affordable homes manages to do something to ameliorate both challenges with one approach. In response to one of the commentators here, I can’t think of anything more dangerous than delegating planning decisions to so-called independent experts. Local democracy might be slow and occasionally tedious but local councillors at least know their areas and often understand that the unspoken local agendas may be very different from those of developers who, after all, just want to make some money for their shareholders.
    It seems to me that the common sense assumptions of the twentieth century are falling apart under the weight of their internal contradictions, and if Bath is going to thrive rather than choke to death, then we need to make some difficult choices about housing priorities, tourism and traffic and move away from thinking that the only valid criteria for local decisions are growth, expansion and attracting business. It’s almost 2021 and the combination of brexit and covid has brutally exposed how divided and close to complete breakdown our society has become. When the freedom of developers is set above the freedom of residents to protest (however incoherently that may occasionally seem), it’s time to step back and think about priorities.
    And – by the way – I think the Crest development along the river bank has about as much architectural charm as a Russian bonded warehouse. Sticking another giant and landscape obscuring building next to it can’t be justified by arguing that it’s too late to save the riverside so it doesn’t matter.!

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