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OPDs allowed to move planning goalposts

RESIDENTS in those parts of rural Wales where One Planet Developments (OPDs) are most common have many complaints about the Welsh Government scheme.

Some claim OPDs are little more than hobbies for incomers who contribute little to the local economy.

Others highlight the perversity of allowing developments in open countryside outside development limits. At the same time, locals cannot extend their homes, and local farmers cannot build for their families.

Each of those factors fuels resentment. However, one thing rural residents pick up on is the lack of enforcement action when OPD owners breach the rules or change their business plans without seeking prior approval.

THE MOVABLE FEAST

For an OPD to gain approval in the first place, the proposal must contain a five-year business plan demonstrating that it is commercially viable. To show their activities meet the conditions of the original permission.

In addition, those who apply for successful OPDs must live on-site in sustainable buildings.

However, hard-pressed planning authorities have neither the resources nor the expertise to check OPDs’ progress.
Annual returns are rarely, if ever, subjected to detailed scrutiny.

More tellingly, some OPD owners change their business plans at will, making a mockery of the supposed sustainability of their original application.

As for the residential element, some OPD owners spend little time at their supposedly permanent residences. Instead, they commute to jobs elsewhere or tuck themselves away in traditional properties during winter.

At least one family operating a supposed OPD in Pembrokeshire spends so little time living their green dream that they’ve licensed a third party to live there in a caravan.

The scheme’s exploitation by unscrupulous chancers, who are more interested in hawking their tale to television companies than fulfilling the OPD mission, blackens the efforts of those sincerely devoted to making OPDs work and sincerely believe in them.

PIECEMEAL ENFORCEMENT

Land is available across Wales, especially in former industrial areas. OPDs are yet to boost the local economies of Merthyr Tydfil or Tonyrefail.

Nevertheless, OPD applications cluster in Wales’s major agricultural areas. Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, where the presumption against development in open countryside is strongest, have the most OPDs.

The number of OPDs is so small that even two or three rotten apples taint public perceptions of all of them.

We looked at the issue of permissions and enforcement with each of West Wales’s planning authorities: Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire County Councils, and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority.

It became evident that in-house expertise in OPDs is rarer than hens’ teeth.

That means planning authorities must rely on training and expertise from those already connected to OPDs and who have an ideological interest in promoting and preserving them or very few planning practitioners with the appropriate level of knowledge.

We asked each planning authority about the training planning officials got and who delivered it.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park authority told us: “All National Park Authority Planning Officers working in the Development Management team have received specific training in 2023 on OPD applications.

“This training was provided by a consultant who is a former Planning Inspector/Planning Ombudsman Advisor who offers several Local Planning Authorities across Wales specialist advice on One Planet Development proposals.

“In addition, three Officers have received further advanced training on assessing Management Plans.”

Ceredigion County Council told us: “Members of the planning teams are required to undertake Continuing Professional Development on a range of professional matters, [OPDs] will have been included as part of this.”

Carmarthenshire County Council also referred to Continuing Professional Development, which included specialist training on OPD: “[C]onducted by the One Planet Council and delivered by James Shorten of Terra Firma in 2020.”

The Council spokesperson continued: “All staff are supported in their development by senior colleagues who provide advice and support to officers, given their experience and knowledge.

“Training for new officers and entrants and refresher training is repeated periodically to meet the needs of the Authority.

“A training programme for Planning Committee Members, which includes specialist training on OPD, has also been arranged.

Pembrokeshire County Council said: “Planning Officers have not received external training in respect of OPD proposals.”

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TICKING THE BOX

We then asked about active monitoring and enforcement. Each planning authority said its officers checked OPDs’ annual returns in line with the provisions of the relevant planning rule (Technical Advisory Note 6). However, we understand those checks are limited to box-ticking exercises instead of checking the submissions sent in by OPD owners against reality.

Few or no proper checks are carried out to verify the returns’ accuracy.
The picture is even more opaque when it comes to changes to business plans or checking that OPD residency obligations are met.
Although some OPDs change their business plans, planning authorities rely on the honesty of OPDs’ owners or local intelligence to keep them updated.

Interestingly, Pembrokeshire County Council’s spokesperson told us: “There will be an element of trial and error for each OPD. A minor change to land-based businesses may be captured through the annual report regime and supplementary reporting by implementing corrective or mitigation measures. The five-year management plan review provides the opportunity to update the management plan. The management plan should be reviewed every five years.

“The Local Planning Authority considers that substantial amendments to a management plan would potentially need to be secured through a new planning application.”

Ceredigion repeated that it followed the OPD guidance 2012 and added: “All requests to change planning consents following their issue are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and following the Development Management Manual and relevant guidance.”

Carmarthenshire said: “There is a requirement for an exit strategy in management plans that identifies what needs to happen if the development does not meet OPD criteria within five years.

“Following national guidance, no formal enforcement action has been considered necessary concerning OPDs in the county to date. However, the Authority has investigated several allegations of breach of conditions from members of the public.”

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority responded: “As with all developments if the Authority is aware of a planning breach or breach of a condition, an enforcement investigation takes place.

“Where a One Planet Development is not performing under its Management Plan, the Authority highlights this to the occupants and monitors the degree and severity of non-compliance.

“Depending on the severity of the breach, the Authority may request that such breaches cease. It may also invite a planning application to vary the Management Plan or, in serious cases, may issue an enforcement notice.

“In some cases, enforcement investigations have led to operators of sites being requested informally (without the use of an enforcement notice) to make changes (for example, removing caravans from the site) where these are not in compliance with planning permission.
“As a result, no enforcement notices concerning OPDs have been issued by the Authority.

“This approach accords with advice set out by WG, which states that when considering enforcement action, the decisive issue for the LPA should be whether the unauthorised development would unacceptably affect public amenity or the existing use of land and buildings meriting protection in the public interest.

“Enforcement action should be commensurate with the planning impacts caused by the unauthorised development; it is usually inappropriate to take formal enforcement action against a trivial or technical breach of control which causes no harm to public amenity.
“The intention should be to remedy the effects of the unauthorised development, not to punish the person(s) carrying out the operation or use.

“Nor should enforcement action be taken simply to regularise development for which permission had not been sought, but which is otherwise acceptable.

“As set out in WG guidance, all Management Plans submitted at the application stage should identify what would constitute a failure of the site as a whole, and all Management Plans should contain an ‘Exit Strategy’ – this is controlled via planning condition on the permissions granted. No OPD in the National Park has yet used an Exit Strategy.”

THE MISSING LINK

And if OPD owners breach the residence conditions, local authorities depend on locals coming forward and telling them – otherwise, they rely on the owners’ good faith on their annual returns.

So, if the original management plan – the one promoted as sustainable and approved as such – falls to bits, getting approval for a new management plan is – more or less – a rubber stamping exercise. There’s the rub.

If the original management plan isn’t sustainable and that’s the document underpinning the whole application, the Welsh Government obliges authorities to bend over backwards to make good applicants’ errors.

You can start with beehives and eggs, change to keeping livestock, or change to growing dandelion and burdock.

No matter how crackpot and broken the original plan, provided you can convince a planning officer or get One Planet activists to jump in behind you, you’re home free.

And, as for living on-site, the checks are even less rigorous. You say you live there, produce a self-serving report showing you live there, and your OPD trots on whether you spend half the year in Marbella or Moylgrove.

If that’s not what the Welsh Government intended, in some cases, that’s exactly what it’s got.

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