An OS map of 1889 showing Blackhill Quarry

Development Manager Chris Rose explains how the planning system supports appropriate development in East Devon and affords significant benefits to the district, its economy and its residents.

You may not have given it much thought, but it is the planning system that prevents our parks from being built on, listed buildings from being demolished and our coastline from being destroyed. It also safeguards green belts and ecology, prevents the construction of large scale development within our valuable countryside and ensures that the right amount of housing, employment, community facilities and infrastructure are provided in the most appropriate places and that developments are safe to access.

The planning system and planners are usually in the headlines due to the approval of permission for something that was unpopular or generated a significant amount of objection – hence my reference in the title of this article to Blackhill Quarry.

While I could have used the rest of this article to explain how East Devon receives over 2,000 planning applications a year, approved approximately 91% against a national average of 88% (for the year ending June 2018), and exceeded Government targets for processing applications within eight and 13 weeks, I thought it would be better to use the Blackhill Quarry application as an example of the range of issues that planning officers consider and to explain how the job involves the balancing of a number of considerations in order to determine whether planning permission should be approved or refused.

The application at Blackhill Quarry involved the expansion of an existing engineering business onto an adjoining piece of land that was previously part of the quarry. As part of permission for the quarrying, it was a requirement that when the quarrying ceased, the land be returned to countryside as part of the adjoining Pebblebed Heaths, which are a highly protected piece of the landscape within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Understandably, the proposal generated a significant level of objection as it was proposing manufacturing units on part of a site that was to be returned to countryside and which lies within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and adjoins an area of high ecological and landscape value.

It is the planning officers' duty to understand in detail the proposal, to read all of the comments in opposition and in support of the proposal, to consult relevant bodies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Highway Authority, and to balance up all of these comments, compare the proposal to local planning policies and to make a recommendation on whether planning permission should be approved or refused.

In this instance, counter-balancing the concerns regarding the landscape, wildlife and highways impacts, were the benefits from the considerable investment in the business units and a high number (approximately 40 in total) of highly skilled jobs that would be created, mitigation for any ecological impact, careful consideration of the visual impact and the lack of objection to the proposals from Natural England, the Highway Authority and Environment Agency.

As part of the planning application, officers were able to secure 2.8 hectares of additional heathland to compensate for the loss of 1.09 hectares to the employment units and to use conditions and a legal agreement to secure this and ensure that the proposal would be of a suitable design and benefit from a suitable access and mitigation.

In this instance, it was considered that a combination of the economic benefits that would be generated by the proposal, coupled by the design of the proposal and compensatory heathland, led to a proposal that should be recommended for approval.

In effect, the harm to the AONB and Pebblebed Heaths was being mitigated through design and the compensatory heathland provision, with the proposal comprising considerable investment in a local business that provided highly skilled and well-paid jobs that local people could benefit from and which was becoming increasingly successful as a result of contracts related to the constriction of Hinckley Point.

Given the complex and contentious nature of the proposal, the application was considered at the Council’s Development Management Committee where, following statements from those for and against the proposal, councillors debated the application in detail and voted to approve permission in accordance with the officer recommendation.

I hope that this example demonstrates that the planning systems is not just about preventing unacceptable development, but about supporting appropriate development that includes significant benefits to East Devon, its economy and its residents - be it through the creation of employment, good quality of design, provision of a certain type of housing and protection of the landscape and ecology.

The job of the Planning Officer is to balance any harm created by a proposal against any benefits, considering in particular any economic, social and environmental impacts. Included within these considerations could be an assessment of some or all of the following: impact upon the amenity of residents, highway safety, visual impact, any economic benefits or impact, whether the proposal results in the creation of a well-design environment, whether suitable community facilities are provided or supported, impact upon climate change, flood risk, impact upon our listed buildings and conservation areas, impact upon ecology, making an efficient use of land, supporting our town centres etc.

While I recognise that the recommendations and decision of planning officers will not always be popular or agreed with, they are made having considered a range of benefits and impacts and ultimately in the interest of ensuring an acceptable impact and for the greater good of East Devon and its economic, social and environmental wellbeing.