Agenda item

DM/20/03538/FPA - Land to the west of Poplar Tree Garden Centre, Hall Lane, Shincliffe, DH1 2NG

Change of use of land for the siting of 4 no. holiday accommodation units with associated parking and landscaping (amended title).


The Senior Planning Officer, Jennifer Jennings, gave a detailed presentation on the report relating to the abovementioned planning application, a copy of which had been circulated (for copy see file of minutes).  Members noted that the written report was supplemented by a visual presentation which included photographs of the site.  The Senior Planning Officer advised that Members of the Committee had visited the site and were familiar with the location and setting.  The application was for change of use of land for the siting of 4 no. holiday accommodation units with associated parking and landscaping (amended title) and was recommended for refusal.


The Chair thanked the Senior Planning Officer and asked Parish Councillor, Michael Banks, Chair of Shincliffe Parish Council to speak in respect of the application.


Parish Councillor M Banks thanked the Chair and Committee for the opportunity to speak and noted that on a personal level he had respect for the applicant and noted regret in seeming to thwart entrepreneurial initiative, however he made no apologies in the circumstances.  He explained that the Parish Council strongly objected to the proposed development, and he would not set out the conflicts with case law and local and national policy and objections as submitted in writing by the Parish Council, as a summary was included within the Officer’s report to Committee set out at paragraph 35.  He noted that the application was contrary to policies within the County Durham Plan (CDP) and National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), with a refusal being sustainable as the application conflicted with green belt policy and did not demonstrate very special circumstances to outweigh the harm caused.

He added the Parish Council did not recognise the social, economic or access benefits that were proposed to arise from the proposed development, nor the temporary nature of the proposed dwellings.


Parish Councillor M Banks noted that if Members were to grant approval for development within the green belt it would set a precedent, be the thin end of the wedge, and make it more difficult for the Committee to refuse green belt applications in the future, be that extension of the current application for further units or another application on green belt elsewhere.  He emphasised the strength of local opposition to the application, including from the Local County Councillor and Parish Council, with the Local MP withdrawing her support.  He noted 161 objections to the application and asked what rule of thumb should be applied in terms of the ratio of those that objected to those that thought the same, two, three, ten times as many.  He added that at paragraph 66 of the report, the applicant had cited laudable aims in terms of innovative, sensitive and sustainable tourism, which the Parish were not against, however the site was green belt land.  He noted both Durham County Council and Shincliffe Parish Council had declared a Climate Emergency, with green belt land representing carbon storage, and asked what message would be given if there was building on the green belt when there were so many brownfield sites in County Durham.  He noted that at paragraph 66 the applicant asked for a decision to be made based upon facts and he added that at paragraph 54 the applicant stated that no statutory bodies had objected to the application, however the Parish Council was a statutory consultee and had objected.  Parish Councillor M Banks explained that at paragraph 55 the applicant had stated the application was in accord with all policy nationally and locally, however, Officers had noted that was not the case.  He added that at paragraph 64 the applicant stated the application would improve the green belt and that local people and businesses supported the application.  Parish Councillor M Banks noted that was not the case, as development on the green belt would reduce and diminished the green belt if built upon and added that the application was not ‘significantly, uniformly and materially supported by both local residents and businesses alike’, as evidenced by the 161 objections received. 


Parish Councillor M Banks noted a Parish Council survey, in late summer, having 92 returns, with 90 either stating to maintain green belt or being in objection to the proposal, with no returns being in support of the application.  He added that it was felt the application was inappropriate development, leading to harm to the green belt and conservation area, in conflict with national and local policies, with no very special circumstances that prevailed.  Parish Councillor M Banks explained that he wished to convey three messages to the Committee in terms of what there was to know, feel and do.  He noted that it was known there was harm to the green belt, and it was the ‘thin end of the wedge’ setting a precedent for further applications. 

He added that there was a strength of feeling as demonstrated by the opposition to the application, including from elected representatives.  He concluded by inviting the Committee to uphold the Officer’s recommendation and refuse the application.


The Chair thanked Parish Councillor M Banks and asked the Local Member, Councillor D Stoker to speak in relation to the application.


Councillor D Stoker thanked the Chair and Parish Councillor M Banks, noting he would not reiterate the points made by the Parish Council.  He explained that the application represented harm to the green belt and could lead to precedent.  He noted that he had not seen such public response to a planning application in 20 years as a County Councillor.  He added that green belt would be weakened as precedents were made and applications were approved.  He noted no very special circumstances to suggest allowing the application.  He noted it was not a case of NIMBY (not in my backyard), rather it was a small village with the issue of housing having been raised.


Councillor D Stoker noted he was surprised in respect of the comments from the Highways Section, adding the Parish Council had been working with Durham County Council for around a year looking at access, noting no vision coming into Hall Lane and also that there were no pavements on either side.  He asked how access would be gained to the holiday homes, especially for children, having to walk through the regularly used car park to go and buy food, with delivery vehicles also using that area on some days.  He concluded by noting that there were other spots within the county where the scheme could have been done without damaging the green belt.


The Chair thanked Councillor D Stoker and asked Mr Colin Jubb, local resident, to speak in relation to the application.


Mr C Jubb explained he lived in Shincliffe Village and represented the Shincliffe Green Belt Group and Durham Green Belt Group who were committed to defending the green belt.  He noted he would summarise some of the reasons why 161 people objected to the proposals and added that he agreed with the Officer’s report where it noted the application represented inappropriate development and therefore harm to the green belt.  He added that Durham County Council policy was a presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt and therefore granting approval would go against policy and in the process set a precedent for future applications.  He noted the applicant agreed that the development would cause harm, however, the applicant claimed that by cladding the shipping containers and planting trees and wildflowers the impact would be minimal. 



He noted residents disputed that assessment, adding that no images of the impact of the proposals on the surroundings had been submitted with the application to support those claims.  Mr C Jubb noted that the applicant’s most recent submission had tried to bypass the regulations that would prohibit the development by reclassifying the buildings as temporary, however, unlike caravans which had wheels to allow them to be moved, the shipping containers were fixed to the ground, were only moveable by cranes and therefore could not be described as temporary.  Mr C Jubb noted the applicant claimed there would be benefits in terms of employment and tourism, which had been supported by Visit County Durham, however the applicant’s claim was not substantiated in that there was a deficit of the proposed type of accommodation across the county.  He noted that the Visit County Durham website referred to self-catering units in 2019 being at 53 percent occupancy, therefore the existing provision more than met the demand.  Mr C Jubb added that even if there was demand, there were other, non-green belt sites that needed investment.  He explained that the proposal was unwelcomed competition to local businesses that already offered accommodation and added it would not lead to additional visitor spend, rather transfer spend from existing business to the proposed development.  He noted that the application would do little to deliver jobs, with analysis by a leading Durham University Economist concluding that one or two part-time cleaning jobs would be created, and therefore only the five Directors of the proposed business would benefit financially.  He added the number of jobs did not outweigh the impact of the development on the site and the green belt policy as a whole and agreed with Planning Officers in their recommendation.  He added that the economic benefits would be enjoyed by very few therefore should not be used to justified the destruction of something enjoyed by so many.


Mr C Jubb concluded by noting that the green belt should be protected and open for generations to come and therefore, given the massive public objection, he asked on behalf of the community that the application be refused.


The Chair thanked Mr C Jubb and asked the applicant, Mr James Wilson to speak in support of his application.


Mr J Wilson thanked the Chair and the other speakers, noting that not once had a single local business objected to the proposals.  He explained that he was before Committee as the culmination of a year long fight for a fair hearing, driven by his dedication to the environment and his passion to promote the best of Durham for all of Durham’s benefit.  He added that he would not have endured the past 12 months had he not been committed to making a positive difference to his own home, nor without a visceral understanding of the climate emergency, the importance of the green belt, and also of the need to champion sustainable economic growth. 

He explained that it was his material belief, supported by both local residents and local businesses, and every independent statutory consultee, that the proposal fully accorded with all green belt policy, namely by complying fulling with NPPF Paragraph 150(e).  He added that position was accepted almost a year ago when the Local Planning Authority (LPA) made it clear that Unbox in Shincliffe would avoid definitive harm to the green belt and therefore represented appropriate development, not requiring very special circumstances.  Mr J Wilson emphasised that he would not have proceeded if that had not been evidentially clear.  He added that policy had not changed, and there had been a continued local misrepresentation, an example being the local church’s social media being used to urge parishioners to object to the proposals on green belt grounds, it having a reach of around 300 people.  He explained that type of campaign, in one form or another, had continued every day he had fought to reach Committee, however, in spite of that the recommendation was only now described as ‘very finely balanced’.  Mr J Wilson noted the reality was emphasised by common sense contradiction.  He noted that each and every single LPA finding accepted that in approving the project, there were either no impacts or only outweighing benefits over doing nothing at all to the area of high landscape value (AHLV), conservation area, local environment, the local ecology and residential amenity amongst every other factor.  He continued by noting that the LPA accepted comprehensively within its report that approving the application would set no precedent threat for the green belt.  He added it was not about difference of opinion, something he had always fully respected and embraced.  Mr J Wilson noted it was about having a practical means to deliver significant benefits, in line with policy, which contributed towards Durham and its environment for everyone equally.  He added that red line boundary, as shown within the application and Officer’s presentation, represented less than five percent of the entirely private location, completely unseen from every public vantage outside of the existing built environment, 90 percent of which was landscaping alone.  He explained that the proposals would re-naturalise a larger part of the green belt that had been in constant use for over a decade and improve permitted public access where no public rights of way existed whatsoever.  He noted the proposals included the planting of 60 new native trees, a 2.5 hectares of wildflower meadow, and hedgerow restoration on what was currently a species-poor mown lawn.  Mr J Wilson explained the proposals were designed to target carbon neutrality and would have a footprint that took up less than 0.8 percent of the entire site, smaller than a single tennis court.  He added that the proposals would add no permanent harm to the ground, only lasting ecological benefit which had been recognised by the LPA in accepting that the structures were temporary in nature, a keen design of the applicant.  He noted that the application was about perspective, in more ways than one, and asked whether it was more important to act in a way that recognises the challenges faced and tackled them head on without impact, or whether it was accepted that it was better to do nothing.

Mr J Wilson noted he hoped that Councillors that had visited the area would have seen the beauty of the area and he noted he sought to protect, improve and put forward to advertise the very best of the beautiful county which was our home.  He added that it was only when looking inward that the minute change the proposal represented could be seen against the backdrop of an existing business on the green belt’s edge.  He noted that to refuse the application would not only be to deny a £160,000 increase in visitor spend every year, but also to deny the ability for Durham to showcase itself.  He added that his convictions related to the urgency to find better, meaningful ways at sustainably progressing and noted that the proposal was one that he felt the vast majority in Durham would actively welcome when considering the facts against the fiction he had to counter for nearly a year.  Mr J Wilson urged Members to consider what was actually proposed and allow the locally conceived project to start and establish positive, sustainable benefits at a time where it was more important than ever.  He concluded by thanking the Members and speakers in taking the time to listen.


The Chair thanked Mr J Wilson and asked Officers if they had any points that they wished to raise in relation to the comments made by the speakers.


The Senior Planning Officer noted that application did receive letters of support as set out within the Committee report.  The Principal Development Management (DM) Engineer, David Battensby noted reference to pedestrians using footways and vehicles, and explained that it was considered whether the proposed development of four small holiday lets would affect what had been an extant permission for the garden centre for decades.  It was therefore considered that there would be no negative impact in terms of highways sufficient to warrant any kind of objection.


The Chair thanked the Officers and asked the Committee for their comments and questions.


Councillor J Elmer noted he had some clarifying questions and asked whether the existing storage area at the site would have required planning permission.  The Senior Planning Officer noted that it would have, however, it had reduced in size from a previously larger area and as it had existed for over 10 years it was therefore deemed permitted.  Councillor J Elmer asked if a landscape and visual impact assessment had been carried out and if not what the criteria was for such an assessment to be required.  The Senior Planning Officer noted the level of an impact assessment to be submitted for related to the size of the scheme proposed, it would usually only be for major proposals, where it would impact upon the World Heritage Site.  She added that the application was submitted with detailed assessment documents looking at the impact on openness, as well as the design and access statement and heritage statement, with Officers being satisfied with that level in order to make a determination on the impacts.

Councillor J Atkinson noted he had listened very carefully and expressed his surprise in terms of the Officer’s recommendation for refusal.  He added that he could see that the applicant was very passionate and while he understood the application was in the green belt, he noted it was as small amount and was adjacent to an existing car park.  He noted the discussion as regards the temporary nature of the proposed units, adding he felt that the shipping containers could be removed relatively quickly if required.  Councillor J Atkinson noted the external treatment of the container would mean they would not look like a shipping container, rather a proper place to reside.  He noted that any enterprise was likely to receive objections, adding that the sustainability of the business was for the applicant to provide for and that he felt the enterprise was one worth trying for.  He noted that the site looked to take advantage of what was there and would not be a blot on the landscape and added he would be minded to go against the Officer’s recommendation.


Councillor N Jones asked as regards access to the site and the number of goods vehicles that would access the site.  The Chair asked if the applicant wished to respond.  Mr J Wilson noted the original design centred on the operational delivery of the garden centre and that there were goods vehicles that accessed the site, as shown in the images displayed during the Officer’s presentation relating to the access.


Councillor C Marshall thanked Officers for their presentation to the Committee noting it was a delicate application and appreciated the work that had gone into the report, balancing all the views.  He noted that the starting point was that each application should be looked at on its own merits, something he felt that the Committee did do.  He added that the Committee was not involved in a ‘popularity contest’ and noted he felt the Committee should not be looking at the number of likes and follows on Facebook or Twitter and reiterated he felt the Committee should be looking at any application on its merits.  Councillor C Marshall noted it had been well documented over the last eight years that there was a shortage of tourism accommodation across the whole of County Durham, adding the tourism industry, pre-COVID-19, had been worth nearly £900 million and employed over 18,000 people across the county and was a massive economic driver for the county.  He noted Members would be aware that the county had the potential to punch above its weight in respect of tourism and felt that the county could perhaps double the value added.  He explained that was not for a lack of attractions, noting the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites together with other drivers for tourism and the economy right across the county.  Councillor C Marshall noted the big issue facing the county was that we did not have a diverse mix of accommodation for people to stay, for example when comparing to neighbouring Northumberland and North Yorkshire with typical overnight stays being only one night in Durham rather than two or three nights.

He noted many visitors passed through Durham, being unable to access affordable holiday accommodation in the right locations.  Councillor C Marshall noted that if we were really serious about the City of Culture and encouraging people to stay in Durham then there needed to be a mix of holiday accommodation in the right places.  He added that it was not possible to put that accommodation on brownfield sites in the middle of areas away from the tourism centres as that was not what people would want.  He noted that he felt there was not a planning policy in place that gave tourism accommodation the acknowledgement as a standalone sector, and felt it was something the Council should be looking at.


In reference to the application, Councillor C Marshall noted that it was very, very finely balanced with all of the statutory consultees, other than the Parish Council, having raised no concerns or very minimal concerns.  He noted that the issue came back to the balance in looking at the impact to the green belt and noted that it should be in proportion.  He noted that given the size of the site he would not have been surprised if the application had been for more units, up to say 30.  He noted that the applicant would have looked at the numbers and made a balanced view on what the impact would be and what the detriment and harm might be upon the green belt.  He noted that if the proposal was about profit and not a local entrepreneur trying to do something good, as well as making a living in the local area, then Members would see a very different application before Committee.  He noted the application was proportionate, in scale and in keeping with area, something that had been really well thought through to comply with the planning requirements of the Council.  Councillor C Marshall explained that the balance was to look at the impact of those units and the development on the economy and he felt the crux of the decision was whether the benefits to the economy outweighed the harm to the green belt.  He noted that, having listened to all at Committee, he felt that the economic benefits and the benefits for the whole of the county, not just Durham City, were such that the application added value to what we were wanting to provide.  He added that without approving developments and projects, such as those within the application, in the right place then campaigns such as the City of Culture would be nothing more than a large public relations stunt.  He noted the need to have the accommodation offer in order for people to come and stay and enjoy Durham.  He concluded by noting he would move that the application be approved as he felt, on balance, the benefit to the economy far outweighed any harm to the green belt.


Councillor J Elmer noted that the application was a difficult one in terms of getting to grips with potential benefits, noting especially the benefit in terms of ecological improvement, but also there was other considerations to go through.  He noted that flooding was an issue that the Environment Agency had responded to application in terms of the potential for flooding and measure that needed to be put in place to make it safe. 

He noted that the way that the calculations were made in assessing the likelihood of flooding in the future was by looking at the frequency of flooding in the past and extrapolating into the future.  He explained that it was no longer a robust method, given that the climate was changing.  He noted that another element was that there was very clear community opposition to the application and, whether he agreed with them or not, he believed that the community position on a development should be of upmost importance in Members’ deliberations.


In respect of the green belt, Councillor J Elmer explained that it protected the heritage of the city and its surrounding area, and that was its purpose.  He added that heritage was the reason that tourists would visit County Durham.  He noted therefore that it was vital to protect the green belt if one was to protect and sustain the economy of the city and its surrounding area.  He added that the Authority could not allow the ‘nibbling away’ of the green belt for whatever reason and, as the Officers set out in their report, the development failed to preserve the openness of the green belt.  Councillor J Elmer noted there was an identified conflict with the purposes of the green belt, in particular safeguarding the countryside and preserving the character of a historic area, rendering the proposals in planning terms as inappropriate development under NPPF Paragraph 150.  He added that paragraph stated that inappropriate development by definition was harmful to the green belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.  He noted that the determination of the development therefore came down to whether or not Members thought there were very special circumstances.  Councillor J Elmer explained that that NPPF Paragraph 148 clarified that the LPA should ensure that substantial weight should be given to any harm to the green belt and those very special circumstances would not exist unless the potential harm to the green belt, by reason of inappropriateness, was clearly outweighed by other considerations.  He noted he felt in this case there were no very special circumstances that outweighed the harm caused to the green belt.  He noted a broader point to developers was that if they wanted to develop in the green belt, then an applicant needed to ensure the development complied with the CDP Policy 20.  He noted that if an application did not comply with Policy 20 then he would always recommend refusal and would do so consistently throughout his tenure on the Committee.  Councillor J Elmer proposed that the Officer’s recommendation be supported and that the application be refused as it was contrary to Policy 20 of the CDP, a policy introduced by the previous administration which he fully supported.


Councillor LA Holmes thanked the Officers for their comprehensive report and agreed with Councillor C Marshall in that each application needed to be considered on its own merits. 


He noted that there was need for visitor accommodation of the type set out in the application and there were economic benefits to such developments.  He added, however, there were other sites where such development would be more appropriate.  He noted that the Council’s policies preventing development on the green belt and therefore he would happily second the proposal made by Councillor J Elmer to uphold the Officer’s recommendation and refuse the application.


Councillor A Surtees explained she was not sure how much this particular application would harm the green belt as, as set out within the report, the area was previously developed land.  She added that looking at Google Maps one was able to see the extent to the area which had been previously developed, noting the Officer having explained that area had shrunk over time.  She noted that if Members were minded to refuse the application, in line with the Officer’s recommendation, then site would be left as a storage area.  She noted that in her opinion the proposed development did not significantly harm the green belt and in fact would improve the green belt.  Councillor A Surtees noted that the Conservation Section had raised no concerns and noted the ecological improvements that would come from the proposed scheme would significantly improve the ecology.  She added she felt it would help preserve our heritage as it would bring in more tourists to appreciate the heritage and beauty of the county helping to improve the economic prosperity for the county.  She noted there was a very fine balance between whether the application should or should not be refused in terms of Policy 20 and added that in her opinion the area in question was previously developed land and she saw no reason why the Committee would not accept this particular application.  She noted that therefore she would not be supporting the Officer’s recommendation and would support the application.


The Area Team Leader (Central and East), Sarah Eldridge noted the test was not whether there was significant harm to the greenbelt, rather it was whether there was impact on the openness of the green belt.  Councillor A Surtees noted than in terms of the openness, the area was already ‘closed’ and there would be no impact upon the landscape.  She added that there would be additional trees, planting would be enhanced, and she did not feel that the openness of the green belt would be affected.


Councillor J Atkinson noted Councillor LA Holmes had stated policies were in place to prevent development on the green belt, however, he did not feel that the Council were looking to prevent development on the green belt where there was a very good case, as made by the applicant and as supported by Councillor C Marshall in his motion for approval.  He added that he felt the area in question was very small and was at the back of the car park, with the proposed development enhancing the rest of the green belt. 

He reiterated that he felt the proposal represented a good enterprise and noted that a precedent would not be set in approving the application.  He seconded Councillor C Marshall, that the application be approved. 


Councillor J Elmer noted at the last four meetings of the Committee there had been three applications for development within the green belt, with two having been approved against the Officers’ recommendations.  The Chair noted that Councillor J Elmer was correct and added that Members had disregarded the protections one would hope for the green belt.  Councillor A Surtees noted that Members were considering the application before Committee, not previous planning applications. 


Councillor K Shaw explained that he had listened to the reasoning from the applicant and the comments from Councillor A Surtees, Councillor J Atkinson and in detail from Councillor C Marshall.  He noted that he was also in support of the application as he felt that very special circumstances had been met.  He noted in relation to the comments from Councillor LA Holmes that there was a need to consider the applications before Committee and not to consider whether other sites, that may be more appropriate, may come through.


The Area Team Leader (Central and East) reminded Members that if they were minded to approve the application there would need to be the usual suite of conditions attached to any such approval.


The Solicitor - Planning and Development, Neil Carter explained that the key issue was that of the green belt, with two rival motions, one for refusal in support of the Officer’s recommendation, the other for approval contrary to the Officer’s recommendation.  He noted the motion for refusal proposed by Councillor J Elmer and seconded by Councillor LA Holmes would be taken first.  He explained that if that motion for approval was carried there would be a need for a suite of conditions and suggested they could be formulated by the Planning Officer in the usual way, by way of delegation.  He added that he would ask the Officer to give an indication of what those types of condition might be, however, he did not feel there was a need to get into the details of the conditions, rather it would be useful in terms of the sort of conditions, in particular any condition that may look to remove the units after a period, noting the discussions relating to the units being of a temporary nature.  He added he would welcome input from the Planning Officer on that point.  He noted that the matter would be put to a vote, in the order that the motions had been put forward.





The Senior Planning Officer noted a series of standard conditions that could be included including: potential options for temporary permission and the number of years that could be; for development to be in accord with approved plans; details of landscaping; strict adherence to the flood risk assessment; management of landscaping including the wildflower meadow; adherence to a management plan in terms of noise and disturbance; and further details on the design of the units, amongst other conditions.


Councillor J Elmer proposed the application be refused, he was seconded by Councillor LA Holmes.


Upon a vote being taken the motion was LOST.


Councillor C Marshall proposed that the application be approved, he was seconded by Councillor J Atkinson.


Upon a vote being taken it was:




That the application be APPROVED subject to a suite of conditions to be agreed under delegated authority by Officers.



Councillor J Elmer left the meeting at 10.51am



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