Going round in circles . . . a tale of Guildford planning

Guest post: Merrow Downs Residents’ Group

We have to start somewhere, even if it’s hard to know where the beginning might be.

Perhaps we should begin with a simple question – when can a developer start on their development? The simple answer should be, when all the necessary conditions have been approved, and the magical words ‘decided – approve’ appear on the planning portal next to the relevant conditions still to be discharged. There will be formal notices of the decision, all signed off by the head of planning attached to the documents tab.

It’s important to have all the correct paperwork signed and sealed, after all, a huge amount of work will have gone on in the background to make sure every important aspect required by the details of the condition, has been examined and shown to be covered by the plan of works. Even more so, if we’re concerned with nature, protected wildlife and the conservation of a National Landscape.

Unsurprisingly, when development in a beloved area of natural beauty is passed, local people take a keen interest in how that development progresses. They want to know that the wildlife will be protected and not displaced, or worse, lost to the area around the development, severing its connection with the surrounding natural environment.

They want to know that every promise to reduce the worst aspects of the development, such as sports floodlighting against dark skies of the National Landscape beyond, will be kept – by planting the full number of trees required, and making enough space in the plans for those trees. They want to know that all the treasured badgers, including this year’s cubs, will be found suitable alternative homes when their setts are closed, not left roaming around and fighting over territory which isn’t theirs.

So, when the diggers arrive on site and start creating mounds of precious calcareous soil, and the hazel trees and scrub inhabited by the Hazel Dormouse population are cut down, next to the Merrow Downs woodland, the assumption is that everything must have been fully approved.

But this development has never been that simple. A check on the planning portal for that crucial ecology condition reveals no decision and no paperwork for a decision, which would normally appear a few days after being made. Over the next week, frantic calls are made to councillors, who enquire of planning – has it been approved? And then this is where it all gets a bit circular. Because every answer to everyone asking, very skilfully dodges the question. At no point, does anyone who would know, say to those who want to know – yes, it’s been approved.

The diggers and chainsaws keep going. Protective fencing isn’t in place as it should be. Complaints go in to enforcement. If the development isn’t fully approved, how can the developer start? Surely, that’s a breach of planning consent? You would expect enforcement to ask the planning team – guys, has it been approved, even if there’s nothing on the website?

But it seems that even enforcement don’t get a straight answer to a straight question. Because planning doesn’t reply to all the enforcement complaints – relax, it’s approved, there’s no breach, you can step away. Enforcement, instead, processes the complaints and says (after 2 weeks of hullabaloo) – they are visiting the site to see if work can ‘lawfully start’. Which is odd, because if planning would just say – it’s approved, of course it can lawfully start – the whole sorry saga would be over.

And now, after more than 4 weeks of mystification, is it all over? Well, no, not really. Enforcement seems finally to have been given an answer by planning, to give to everyone else – they have been told to say the condition was discharged by ‘deemed discharge’ more than 2 months ago.

Now deemed discharge isn’t exactly approval. To many in the know, it might be considered the ‘get out of jail free card’ for hasty developers. But even this has to follow a process, with accompanying documentation. Does the application page on the planning portal now, triumphantly state ‘decided’ with the relevant documents attached? Surely, if this went through more than 2 months ago, everything should be readily available to put online.

To answer a straight question with a straight answer – no, it doesn’t.


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