Thursday 23 August 2012

Residents First? Not in Labour's Reading

Things kicked off at last night's Planning Committee meeting because Labour's ranks were down by three, most notably Transport & Planning Lead Cllr Tony Page, and the Chairman Cllr Pete Ruhemann. This meant the four Labour councillors present lacked their normal majority so couldn't just do as they pleased - no matter how much they protested!

The disharmony was caused by Labour's Cllr Hoskin asking to defer an agenda item for a site visit because he "didn't know the area".  This was strange because he rarely attends Site Visits, doesn't to my knowledge go off on his own initiative to familiarise himself with sites; and usually has no qualms deciding applications without first having seen them.  In fact the same has gone for the rest of the Labour Committee members for the last year or more.  I wrote about the problem in this post last month.

Other reasons I smelled a rat were the application - 99 York Road (round the corner from the now closed Carnival Stores, Caversham Road/A4155) - is in Abbey Ward which Cllr Tony Page represents.  Interestingly he was the Ward councillor responsible for bringing it to Committee so he could easily have asked for a site visit in advance of it coming to Committee: But he hadn't.  He can hardly plead ignorance having been a councillor since he was a teenager and Lead for Planning for a good few years as well!

I didn't think it right to inconvenience all those people who had come specially for this item last night, I'd done my due diligence and therefore said I felt the proposed deferment was unnecessary.  This flummoxed Cllr Chris Maskell in the chair who tried to persuade the Committee that it was normal that any request was agreed to - and that like his colleague he didn't know the site either!  Cllr Hoskin did himself further disservice by disingenuously turning the matter into me not caring to allow the Committee to understand the locals' concerns for this contentious site.  If it hadn't been a political decision to defer the item, Labour would have told officers and me of their intention in advance of the meeting.

Anyway Cllr Melanie Eastwood (Green) supported me, as did Cllr Ricky Duveen (Lib Dem) and we forced the reluctant Cllr Maskell to go to a vote on deferring for a site visit or hearing the application then and there.  Labour lost so we went ahead with the debate.

The chair of the local residents' association spoke well against the application, vividly highlighting locals' concerns about the noise and disturbance the proposed change of use would cause (from a former garage and yard to a pressure spray car wash and valet business).  She likened the jet pressure spray noise to lawn mowers, pointing out the noise would be relentless throughout the day if the business were to flourish.  Also she highlighted that similar applications in dense residential areas elsewhere in the country have been refused.  Later the applicant's architect spoke in favour of the proposal, when Cllr Maskell eventually remembered to invite him.

Cllr Ed Hopper raised his concerns about the entrance as it is narrow with limited sight-lines whilst Cllr Eastwood, I and others had a long debate about the presence of Japanese Knotweed - a non-native invasive plant which spreads through even just a fragment of root and can damage tarmac, concrete and properties.

I proposed the Committee refuse the application as it would impact upon the neighbours' amenity whose terraced houses back on to the site, that the noise and disturbance in this heavily populated area was an inappropriate use, adding Cllr Hopper's highways objections.  Cllr Hoskins seconded my proposal, but Cllr Eastwood raised a new concern that refusal might make the site a blight for the area as she felt no other use may be found and the Japanese Knotweed might then not be dealt with.  Even though Cllr Richard Willis pointed out that once the presence of Japanese Knotweed is identified a landowner has to take action to prevent its spread (which was confirmed by the case officer), Cllr Eastwood voted against.  However the rest of the Committee supported my proposal and the application was duly refused.

It was a long debate (not helped by the chairing), but it was good to meet the public's expectation of hearing it last night in spite of Labour's desire to delay until Cllr Page is back!

On other agenda items, there was the Tree Preservation Order (TPO) for trees in Blagrave Lane which I supported.  I'd been made aware by one resident that a property was being sold and there was an objection by the owner to a copper beech being TPOd.  Before the meeting I had a look for myself and could see the tree from the road side.  As my own neighbours have a beautiful copper beech, from which I gain much enjoyment, I was happy to support the officer's recommendation, as well as the first resident's wish, for confirmation of the TPO.

There was a unique application to remove part of footpath 47 (which goes through Jefferson Close) from the definitive map and statement in Peppard Ward to which my colleague Cllr Richard Willis spoke.  It was noteworthy that no residents had approached him about it over the last two years.  He spoke robustly in support of the right of way and the officers' hard work to ensure its continuation.

Lastly there was the backland development on the rear garden of number 3 Grosvenor Road in Thames Ward (which I represented for 6 years up until May when my colleague Cllr Ed Hopper was elected).  Cllr Hopper raised his concerns about the tandem proposal, the shared driveway and the close proximity between the neighbouring properties at 49 & 47 Ellesmere Close.  After listening to the debate he went on to propose refusal on the aforementioned grounds which was carried with the support of Cllr Duveen even though the Green and Labour councillors sat on their hands.

All in all it was a satisfying night with my two new Conservative colleagues actively participating - in fact councillors of all parties, with the exception of Labour, speaking.   I believe we stood up for the town's electorate, as indeed is our duty.