Before the meeting started, strains of Robert Crick’s infamous Reputation Song – https://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/the_reputation_song/ , could be heard coming from a chair somewhere near the members area.  It helped pass the time while the room filled up with around 120 residents, plus officers and councillors.

BBC Spotlight had covered the event live on their lunchtime programme, with an interview with Richard Thurlow. 

In the chamber, reporters from the Sidmouth Herald and Western Morning News were waiting with their laptops at the ready

The committee was looking a bit thin as seven of its councillors were advised not to take part as sitting on various pro-move committees may have compromised their impartiality.

The quality of public speaking was remarkable, with resident after resident demonstrating not only an in-depth knowledge of the reports and issues, but also a firm grasp of the key planning considerations.

12 members of the public put their views to the committee, with Sidmouth councillors Stuart Hughes, Graham Troman, Christine Drew, Sheila Kerridge and Frances Newth all arguing for a similar outcome – no development on the car park or the Knowle gardens.

The application had been resubmitted at least three times, following continual errors in the economic impact assessment, which originally claimed that there would be a net gain of three jobs. 

The latest assessment admits that around 70 jobs would be lost (and the officer’s report read to me like a series of understatements on the economic effects of the office move).

Head of planning, Ed Freeman set out the council’s position, explaining that the application was for a 60 bed care home on what is the current car park and 50 dwellings, which would encroach significantly onto the beautiful Knowle gardens, which has many important and unusual trees.

But the debate got off to a controversial start with members of the public, quite reasonably, applauding speakers. 

But chairman, Mark Williamson said: “We don’t clap in this committee, no clapping please.” 

The applause grew louder.

The public speakers were: 

Richard Thurlow, who said the application “ignored inconvenient truths” and contained “many inconsistencies and errors”  and that job losses would be significant.

Steven Kendall-Torry, who was speaking on behalf of Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce, told the committee that car parking was the life-blood of the town and all EDDC had ever done was reduce it, increase the price of it and now wanted to take away the park and walk car park.  He said the application had contained a “litany of errors.”

Jeremy Woodward pointed out the inconsistency in claims that the only issue up for consideration at this afternoon’s meeting was the application, while the press release had revealed that the planning application was part of the council’s “aspirations” to move.

Keith Northover spoke of the loss of privacy of the bungalows on Knowle Drive, which would be dwarfed by three storey buildings.

Michael Temple gave a particularly passionate account of his views.  He described the application as “an act of corporate vandalism” with half a football pitch of recreational green space lost.  He said that buildings would be wedged hard up against important trees, including the monterey pine.  There would only be “a small wedge of garden left,” he said and alluded to the open space report which had described Knowle and Killerton Gardens as of “exceptional quality.”

Barry Curwen  was critical of the reports in the planning application, describing them as “seriously flawed and grossly misleading.”  He said that they contravened many policies in EDDC’s adopted Local Plan.  There was “no evidence” to back up claims that there would be a beneficial impact on the economy of the district, he said.

Kelvin Dent sympathised with the officers, particularly the legal officer, speaking as a retired solicitor who used to work in a planning environment.  He reminded councillors that if they had any doubt about any aspect of the principle of the scheme, they should refuse it.  Mr Dent said the proposal to build over Knowle gardens was “downright vandalism.”

Fran Deegan (on behalf of Julia Hubbard) emphasised her concerns about the unsuitability of highways access and the inappropriateness of a care home in that location.

Peter Whitfield spoke about the open space report and his concerns that it had included the Byes in the open space calculations.  This was entirely inappropriate Mr Whitfield said, as it did not meet the specification for the standard open space criteria.  Including the Byes in the figures had skewed the sums considerably, which meant it looked as though Sidmouth had more recreation land than it did.

Richard Eley launched a blistering attack on the application as being a “car crash, an omnishambles and a dog’s breakfast.”  He was also scathing about the claims that Sidmouth had an “oversupply” of open space. He suggested that there was probably an oversupply of trees and jobs too, so perhaps they should be got rid of in line with national averages! 

Many guffaws followed this statement as there is something very silly indeed about the idea of having an “oversupply” of recreation land, as though it is a bad thing, which should be rectified forthwith!  He said “shame on EDDC to reduce a natural asset to a burdensome inconvenience.”

Alan Durrant chair of the Sid Vale Association agreed that it was an “error strewn process” and urged the committee to refuse it.  He asked why the chief executive, Mark Williams had refused to mark out the grounds to show how much of the gardens would be lost, as the extent of the building was “truly shocking.”

Peter Nasmyth said he spoke on behalf of his grandfather and forebears, who had created the beautiful park and had entrusted it to the people of Sidmouth through EDDC.  He said his grandfather would be “horrified and ashamed” to see plans to ruin it “for the sake of a modernist building at Honiton.”

At this point, myself, Cllr Roger Giles and Ben Ingham had our say.

My speech, which was irritatingly a touch too long so I got cut off, outlined a recent appeal decision in North Devon, which found in favour of the countryside even though North Devon District Council did not have a five year land supply for housing, an appeal decision at Westhayes, West Hill (see next blog) on parkland, which an inspector had rejected last year. 

I was pretty horrified to read the economic assessment, set out in the officer’s report. Even on a speedy read through this morning it was clear that it was full of speculation and seemed to considerably downplay the incredibly damaging implications that the proposed development would have on Sidmouth’s economy.  The removal of the car park alone was clearly going to have a devastating effect! 

The justification for the development seemed like clutching at straws.  How on earth can a “significantly detrimental impact” (words straight from the officer’s report) on the Sidmouth economy be anything other than a negative thing?  But according to the officer’s report it would have an beneficial impact on the district as a whole because of (temporary) construction jobs and jobs in the care home (which may never even materialise)!

It smacked of robbing Peter to pay Paul, which is about as much as I managed to get out before I was cut off.  I had been going to mention the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  Surely it cannot make financial sense to make one community suffer to benefit another community?  This cannot be in line with the spirit of the NPPF, even if it isn’t actually set out as a rule (as we kept being reminded).

Cllr Roger Giles raised the issue of the many important trees that would be lost from the “magnificent parkland.”  He said he had seen worse applications but they were all refused.  He, like many of residents, thought EDDC would rejected outright, plans from a private developer who wanted to build over Knowle, its car park and gardens.

Cllr Ben Ingham said the design was “appalling” and the application fell way short of the requirements of the NPPF.  It failed on economic sustainability and the application, Cllr Ingham said, showed how out of touch the applicant (EDDC) was with the community it is supposed to be serving.

Jane Terry from Bell Cornwell spoke on behalf of the applicant (EDDC).  She alluded to an excess of open space, to mutterings of disapproval from the public gallery.  She said the site was within the town’s built up area boundary and it was “regrettable” that there would be some “gradual loss” of employment in the locality, but not across the district.  She claimed it was a “sustainable development in accordance with the NPPF.”

There was some heckling at this point, which prompted Cllr David Key (committee member) to scold residents about a “lack of respect” as though they were a bunch of schoolchildren.  He said “It’s absolutely disgraceful when we (committee members) have all sat quiet.”

Chairman, Cllr Mark Williamson, said he agreed with Cllr Key’s sentiments and repeated earlier statements about his dislike of clapping. He said:  “It doesn’t add anything.”  Groans and more heckling ensued.

Ward member, Sheila Kerridge said that Sidmouth must maintain its economic and social viability and building on the car park would have a detrimental effect. 

Frances Newth added that she had had a few sleepless nights over the application.  She supported the case to move and outlined leaky roofs, asbestos and “an antiquated phone system.”  But neither Cllrs Newth or Kerridge supported building on the gardens or the car park.

Then into the committee debate.  Cllr Chamberlain agreed with the entire plan, and moved a proposal that the committee should approve the application.  This was immediately seconded by Cllr Martin Gammell

It looked bad at this point, as Cllr Mike Howe, although clearly torn, appeared to be veering the same way as Cllrs Gammell and Chamberlain.

And Cllr Alan Dent appeared to be thinking along the same lines… until his last sentence when he said he couldn’t support building on the lower gardens or car park.

And here the debate started to shift.  Cllr Martin Gammell withdrew his seconding of the proposal to approve the application.

Geoff Pook was convinced of the case to move, but not of the planning application.  He thought money should be made up from elsewhere if required, rather than sacrificing attractive open space and a car park.  He said a much more sympathetic application was needed.

Cllr Key, typically, was all for approving the application.

Then down to the last three speakers.  Cllrs Sullivan, Potter and Williamson.  Cllr Sullivan gave a rousing (and rather mutinous) speech about the fact he wasn’t even convinced of a need to move to new offices.  He said EDDC should sell off some land to finance the Knowle’s refurbishment.  What’s wrong with an old building, Cllr Sullivan wanted to know.

Cllr Ken Potter agreed that he didn’t want to lose the car park and gardens.

That left chairman, Cllr Williamson, who spent some time outlining his thoughts on how Sidmouth had over-relied on one employer and EDDC should be looking at the proposal from a district wide perspective.  He was happy that the remaining open space would be available “in perpetuity.”  He added that the economic benefits outweighed economic “disbenefits.”  (?!)

Then there was a recorded vote.  It was as follows:  Williamson, Key and Chamberlain in favour of the scheme.  And Potter, Dent, Sullivan, Pook, Howe and Gammell against.  Six votes to three.  The application was rejected. 

And with it, a large headache arrived for the cabinet and relocation working party. 

EDDC (quite sensibly) is not allowed to appeal against its own decision. 

How can it make the cash it needs for state of the art new offices in Honiton if councillors on the development management committee won’t accept development on the Knowle car park or gardens?

What relocation schemes will be cooked up next?  And how much more money will be poured down the drain on this wretched project?  At the last count, well over one quarter of a million pounds had been spent.  How can this beleagured plan to move be in the best interests of taxpayers and residents?

As I left this evening, residents were offering to discuss a possible way forward with officers and councillors (and possibly to end the bitter war over this issue).  I hope that now, finally, EDDC representatives will be big enough to listen and engage with the people.