Today I have received a letter from Vice-Admiral Sir John Dunt KCB, the chairman of the governing body of the Royal Star & Garter Homes. Sir John was informing me that the charity which he heads has decided to pull out of the proposed development of the Jolly Boatman site opposite Hampton Court. They will now look elsewhere for a new, modern home for their disabled ex-Servicemen residents.
This is a controversial development which was opposed by most if not all of the local councillors from Molesey. It came (under the rules then in force) before an extraordinary general meeting of all Elmbridge BC councillors for resolution. I considered the application carefully in light of the advice on planning law provided to us, and decided that, on balance, it merited support.
Separately, I also thought that the proposed building was quite attractive, that the area was currently an eyesore and that there was no realistic prospect of another developer offering to improve the site in the foreseeable future.
The reason why the Star and Garter Homes have decided to withdraw is that an individual has issued an application for judicial review of the Council’s decision to grant planning permission. The matter has now been in the High Court for some time and according to the letter which I have just received, is unlikely to be resolved before October. Given that the original decision was made in December 2008, the charity could not permit further delay and uncertainty given the vulnerability of their residents.
I cannot comment on the merits or otherwise of the judicial review application and I have no reason to doubt the good intentions of the applicant. Nor can I say whether the development can still proceed without the Star & Garter Home. However I do find it hard to believe that the opposition to this scheme has, in the final analysis, made a positive contribution to the sum total of human happiness.
Councillors generally do not comment on planning applications. This is because they may find themselves sitting on a committee which decides the application, and any recorded comments could be relied upon by unsuccessful parties as evidence of “pre-determination”. Councillors are required to approach planning applications with an open mind, ready to give all the evidence for and against an application a fair hearing.
The prospect of a new service station on the M25 on greenbelt land in Downside is opposed by the Cobham & Downside Residents’ Association, the Cobham Conservation & Heritage Trust and, I believe, the Chamber of Commerce. Dominic Raab, our MP, has written to Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, to ask him to call the matter in. However, outside the town of Cobham, there has been no support for this position at all. At meetings of the West Area Planning Sub-Committee and the full Planning Committee, the Cobham & Downside councillors, John Butcher, Mike Bennison and Dorothy Mitchell, have found themselves isolated in their efforts to point out certain shortcomings in the application as presently formulated. Further, the Surrey Advertiser recently ran an editorial advising the campaigners against the service station to accept defeat gracefully.
Inevitably, certain voices have claimed that the whole process is a “stitch-up”. I would not agree with that. But one does wonder why colleagues of all parties refuse to support the cogent and carefully researched arguments which have been advanced by the three Cobham & Downside councillors. And I also ask myself why it should be, when so many commentators decry the failure of politicians properly to serve the communities which elect them, that the efforts of certain committed and hard working local councillors are dismissed so lightly by those who will not have to live near to the consequences of their decisions.