Making plans work for us

WHETHER it s a major new housing development in Soham or a new shed in Ely, an application will go through the planning office at the district council. Although the decisions made in the planning department affect people across East Cambs, few of us reall

WHETHER it's a major new housing development in Soham or a new shed in Ely, an application will go through the planning office at the district council.

Although the decisions made in the planning department affect people across East Cambs, few of us really know what goes on behind its doors.

IAN RAY spent the morning with development control team leader Lucie Turnell to find out more.

KEVIN McCleod has a lot to answer for. The Grand Designs presenter has been particularly critical of local authority planning in the national press of late, something that has understandably irked Lucie and her colleagues.

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"Planning departments do get a lot of bad press," she said.

"But we are nice people on the whole and we are approachable."

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Lucie said there has been a positive aspect of the McCleod effect, however.

"People are much more interested in design because of programmes like Grand Designs and they expect more as a consequence."

Loosely speaking, the planning department is there to protect an area and its environment while still making sure there's enough development going on to give us the jobs and shops we need.

It's the job of Lucie and her team of three (as well as another team of four), to walk the tricky line between approving and refusing applications.

Lucie took me to Lisle Lane in Ely to see the potential site of DIY outlet Focus, and took me through the things that planners must look at on-site, including access, the effect on residents and even views of the cathedral from the fields beyond.

Developments like this one must also fit in with the council's over-arching retail strategy.

An important part of the balancing act is public consultation; when an application is put in, the council invites responses from local residents, normally by writing to them and putting a notice up, and their responses form part of the planning process.

"I think a lot of people think that when they object, we haven't read the letter they sent if the decision goes against them, but we do read every letter and their views are always taken into consideration," Lucie said.

Lucie took me to see the site of a house in Burwell's conservation area that the council had originally refused, but the applicants had successfully appealed the decision. She told me development officers look for dozens of things when they conduct a site visit for this kind of development, from access to the site, to the materials the development will make use of, to the number of windows that overlook the site.

"We carry out a site visit for every application that's made, whatever the scale, because we have to see it for ourselves to make sure that everything is covered."

New legislation means that planning applications that are within a designated conservation area must come with a complete a design access statement, which Lucie said can be a little unnerving for people.

"I suppose this can seem like bureaucracy gone mad, but it doesn't need to be complicated. We need it so we know people have considered all of the issues involved."

She said the best thing people can do is ask.

"We are happy to speak to people to give them advice about planning issues.

"People are also free to come in and have a look at the plans for any development they want to; we have a duty planning officer that can help people, because the plans can be quite complex sometimes."

Lucie showed me the plans for an eco-friendly home which will stand near the road on the A142. An architect has designed his own home for the site, which will occupy the same space as the previous building, a restriction imposed by the council.

A significant part of planners' work is the enforcement of planning conditions placed on developments.

"When a decision goes out of our door that's not the end of it for us," Lucie said when we visited the site of a 42-home development at Tunbridge Lane, Bottisham.

"We still have to go back and forth to make sure the conditions we have imposed have been adhered to by the developers."

The scheme will see two, three and four bedroom homes built at the site, and part of Lucie's role in the project was to meet local councillors and residents to keep them informed about the scheme.

Lucie, who wanted to get involved in planning because she liked the idea of spending much of her day in wellies, said the most satisfying part of her job is when a project comes to fruition.

"It's really good to go back and to see the results of something you've been so involved with," she said.

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