Poor beleaguered Mr Seaton (for SLP) took the stand again this morning, looking even more unhappy than he did yesterday.
Richard Ground (EDDC’s barrister) asked him a couple of final questions on development in rural villages and then he had to face the advocate for Acland Park. This entailed a few short questions to get Mr Seaton to agree that there were no reasons why the inspector should not approve their site.
The poor man then had to face Vincent Fraser (QC for Wainhomes).
The big guns in this battle are ranged between Strategic Land Partnerships (SLP) and Wainhomes. Both want to build on significant sites on great swathes of the countryside. Both were seeking to persuade the Planning Inspector, Jessica Graham, that theirs should be the site she should choose for building. In reality, she could decide on any combination of sites, all of them, or none of them.
Mr Fraser embarked on the heritage assets of Camp Field (the SLP site) pointing out that there were two sites of merit: Tower Hill and the ancient boundary between Feniton and Ottery St Mary which has been in place since the eleventh century and predates legal history. It seems that there are few such boundaries which are so well recorded.
He asked him to agree that it has influenced the remote fields and settlements on the other side of the village. It’s recognised that to the west the boundary has been preserved. Its preservation up into the copse over the hill emphasises the importance of the hill and the sense of place of Feniton.
Mr Seaton attempted to argue that SLP’s proposed development wouldn’t impinge on the view up the hill. This was a tactical mistake. Mr Fraser argued that landscape and boundary overlap, heritage and visual impact overlap and that these are important.
Mr Seaton felt that they were in ‘murky waters’, but that the historic relevance is a distinct issue. The discussions became more and more tetchy and poor Mr Seaton became more and more uncomfortable.
They then covered the importance of Camp Field in the wider context of the village and views from footpaths. They covered the importance of Camp Field in the context of Sweetham’s Cottage. They covered the importance of Camp Field as the rural backdrop to the settlement. They covered Camp Field quite a lot.
Mr Fraser then asked an increasingly flustered Mr Seaton about bats. Why had no bat survey been completed? A long debate ensued during which Mr Seaton suggested that development would not harm bats. WH’s ecological specialist found very rare greater horseshoe bats on the Wainhomes site. Why were no surveys done for these on the SLP site?
Turning to Highways matter, Mr Fraser (WH) asked about the visibility splays proposed at the entrance to the SLP site and for pedestrian access at the top of the site nearest the railway station. As Mr Seaton seemed a little flustered, Mr Fraser asked, ‘Are you having difficulty understanding the plans?’
Mr Fraser suggested to Mr Seaton that the SLP site would have to cut into the Devon bank in order to make the project feasible. To which the extraordinary response was, ‘To a degree, yes’.
Mr Fraser then said that the landscape assessment hadn’t covered that and there had been no visual impact assessment. Mr Seaton mumbled a response and was met with ‘I’m glad you have the confidence to address these issues.’ He also suggested that more of the Devon bank would have to be removed for the pedestrian access.
By this time, we were starting to feel sorry for Mr Seaton. Well, a bit sorry anyway. But worse was to come.
Mr Fraser (WH) put it to Mr Seaton (SLP) that accessing the settlement to and from the village requires crossing the railway line, which is a disincentive to walking. ‘It’s an unmanned level crossing’, he said, ‘local people in the area, particularly children at the school have a problem with the railway line.’
Poor Mr Seaton could only respond that it was important that children are educated so that they know how to deal with the matter.
So that’s alright then.
Then the killer blow.
SLP own the land next to the school currently occupied by the Social Club. Mr Fraser (WH) asked Mr Seaton (SLP) if his client would sell the necessary land to Devon County Council for the school. He responded that it depended on getting permission on Camp Field.
‘Are you saying that SLP are coming to this inquiry to blackmail people?’ responded Mr Fraser.
They then moved on to the agricultural tenancy of Colesworthy Farm over Camp Field. Mr Fraser put it to Mr Seaton that were permission refused, then the land would be farmed as it is now.
Mr Seaton hesitated and Mr Fraser came back with ‘Your client is taking the huff again?’
Mr Seaton struggled through the rest of the questioning. Mr Fraser was giving him an extremely hard time and at one point asked him, ‘And what is your experience of pig farming?’
I may be being harsh on Mr Seaton, but I suspect his only experience of pig farming is a couple of rashers beside his fried eggs in the morning.
Poor Mr Seaton looked so relieved when the barrage of questions was over and his cross-examination was salvaged by SLP’s barrister who led him more gently along the road to redemption. His questioning was so gentle that the normally mild-mannered Richard Ground (EDDC’s barrister) was forced to complain about leading questions.
After a short break, we were treated to a fascinating discussion about the historical importance of Camp Field. I could have listened to this for quite some time and have to admit to my ignorance of the age of the boundary.
Christine Gibbins and Jenny Wilson, stalwarts of the History Society, listened in rapt attention. Although it was well known and well documented before today, this boundary will no doubt soon become the subject of further local research.
SLP’s barrister waded back in to explain that Sweetham’s cottage floods which is a major concern for a grade 2 listed cob cottage. Mr Edis (the heritage asset specialist) agreed that everything possible should be done to protect it.
Guess what? If the SLP site were granted permission, then Sweetham’s flooding problems would be solved by SLP putting in a ditch to circumvent the cottage.
Finally, Julian Arthur of Tyler Grange appeared on behalf of WH. He had concerns that SLP had not done sufficient surveys to address the likelihood of there being dormice, bats and slow worms.
I sometimes feel as though I’m going round and round and round.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At this point, the day’s proceedings drew to a close. Ms Graham will be undertaking site visits and intends to spend a whole day in the village looking at the sites from every viewpoint imaginable.
Acland Park is saying that the site visit on their land must be preceded by a safety briefing. There were stifled giggles from members of the public. (I really think that an illegally parked static mobile home should be removed immediately, if only for the safety of the occupants.)
The inquiry reconvenes on Tuesday, 4 February, at 9.30 at the Flybe Training Academy for a final two days of deliberations.
In the meantime, Acland Park is seeking a six-figure sum in costs from EDDC and East Devon are counter-seeking costs for the costs claims.
We’re playing with the big boys here!