Planning Woes

I mentioned in a previous entry that I was planning to create a vehicle entrance into the wood to facilitate management operations. I read Forest Research Information Note ODW 7.03 “Access Track Construction in Small Woodlands” where it explained that forest roads and tracks are governed under “Permitted Developments” (PD) in the Town and Country Planning Act 1995, but I was advised by East Herts Council to seek pre-application advice. I obtained a copy of the application form and read the guidance notes. A request for confirmation that proposed works comprise PD was subject to a charge of £50 including VAT, so I wrote a check and sent it off on April 17th with the application form and plans. On May 4th I got a reply from Michael Chalk (planning officer, west team, development control). He confirmed that no application for planning permission would be required but that in accordance with paragraph A.2(1) of the act I would need to submit a formal application to the Council to allow them to determine whether prior approval would be required. He enclosed an application form and guidance on submitting the application, for which there would be a fee of £70.

Rather than fill in the paper form I decided to submit my application using the Planning Portal, which is “the UK Government’s online planning and building regulations resource for England and Wales”. My arborist friend told me that he uses the Planning Portal for all his applications for consent to carry out tree work, with the advantage that they are all then available online in one place. So first I had to create an account on the Planning Portal which was straightforward. Then I clicked on “Start an Application” and followed the instructions. The application itself was simple but I had to submit supporting documentation consisting of at least a “location plan” and a “block plan”. At this point I started to get the feeling I was falling down a rabbit hole!

In the United States the USGS does what the Ordnance Survey does here in the UK. The difference is that USGS mapping data is made available to the public free of charge whereas OS data is guarded like the Crown Jewels and licensed commercially, which means that anything in the UK involving mapping is an expensive minefield. The Planning Portal has strict requirements for any maps or plans submitted, effectively forcing people to buy from one of the Planning Portal’s accredited suppliers. I chose Streetwise Maps, created and account, and then clicked on “Planning Maps”. The good thing about the Streetwise website is that you can mark up maps with required features like the site boundary, and since it is an accredited supplier the maps will have necessary features like a scale and an arrow pointing north. So at a cost of another £42 I created and downloaded the two required maps.

Now with the required supporting documents I was able to submit my application on the Planning Portal. I did so on May 17th and it was transferred to East Herts Council, to whom I paid the £70 fee online by giving the Planning Portal reference number as the payment reference. An email from the Planning Portal said that if East Herts Council needed any more information they would contact me directly. On May 23rd East Herts Council sent me a letter acknowledging receipt of my application and saying that if it had not been decided by June 13th I would be permitted to proceed.

On June 8th Michael Chalk made a decision that prior approval was required and that it was refused on the grounds that “Insufficient information has been submitted to show that the proposed access would be used with ongoing forestry works at the site”. This was an unexpected blow – what sort of information did he want, and why had he not contacted me earlier to ask for it before making his decision? I was starting to understand why so many people are driven to despair by the experience of dealing with the planning system and felt I had been taken for a sucker, parted with £162 and left with nothing to show for it.

I phoned Michael Chalk and asked what sort of information he was expecting. Apparently I should have submitted a detailed management plan which included timescales, volume of timber to be extracted etc. I intended to develop a five year management plan anyway but it probably won’t be ready till next year and although I won’t be doing any major thinning before then there is stuff I want to be getting on with (including maintenance of the restricted byway) for which I need to take tools into the wood. At the moment I have to park down by the river and walk up the road which is why I wanted to get a vehicle entrance sorted out sooner rather than later but now it seems I will have to apply again next year and pay another fee. In the meantime, since the fence is about six feet from the road there is room to pull a car off if I clear a bit of the verge, and there is nothing to stop me cutting the fence and putting in a pedestrian gate. If I had known what I know now then I would have already done that and not bothered contacting the Council at all. At least I have learned something!

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