Whack’a’mole – Green Belt planning application edition

With the film studio planning application still undecided (and as yet unclear when the Bucks Strategic Sites Committee will meet about it – so you can still object) and the van storage application withdrawn, two new planning applications have appeared in the Little Marlow Lakes Country Park.

Football pitches

The first one (planning application 22/08176/FUL) is to put in place 5 grass football pitches next to the Athletics track (and thus involving Buckinghamshire Council). It is not as extensive as ideas being floated in 2021, but strange nonetheless.

This is what the proposal looks like:

The ground will be levelled, the pitches will be put in place, together with some other “biodiversity improvements” (hedgerows, trees, wildflowers) as per their plan. However, it is unclear how anyone is expected to access these pitches from either the footpath (blocked by an existing and retained hedgerow) or the car park (from the “retained grassland” indicated as parking above on which they are parked, through the “wildflower grassland”?). How long before it all turns into a mudbath?

Another curiosity is the applicant. in one document the customer is listed as “Brenard Leisure” – the closest we can find is Brenard Properties Limited, linked to Michael Shanly (one of its directors). Some of the documents also have their title as the document location:
P:\1293 Shanly Group Little Marlow\8.0 Drawings in Progress\8.2 Revit\01-WIP Data\1293 Site Plan Reduced option.pdf

So there will be just football pitches. “For the avoidance of doubt, no floodlighting, seating, changing, clubhouse, or other buildings/structures are proposed as part of this planning application.”

Who will use a football pitch during the day, with only natural lighting? Not that many people, but it is about the principle of having pitches available:

“The football pitches will be available for use by the local community and clubs. The applicant is currently in discussion with a number of local football teams / clubs who have identified a need for both training and match pitches. The application seeks to establish the principle of pitches on this site to enable these discussions to continue.”

So no lighting etc. in this application. But an intention to seek a variation on the approved planning application to make full use of the pitches, with additional buildings and floodlighting. Yes, now it makes sense.

It is clear that the application as proposed will not be useful to the community or the general public – is it just preparing the ground, literally, for something that will have a major impact on the community and Greenbelt?

Car parking on Fieldhouse Lane

Meanwhile, in the southwestern corner of the Little Marlow Lakes Country Park, Folbo Y Ltd seeks to make its temporary car park permanent (planning application 22/08240/FUL), plus expand it from 200 to 271 spaces.

The current temporary planning consent for the car park for 200 spaces expires on 31st January 2023, so there is a bit of time pressure on this one! That explains why comments need to be in by then… An application in July 2021 was refused on it being inappropriate development in the Green Belt, on “a failure to contribute towards the outdoor recreational function of the (…) Country Park” and on a lack of positive impact on biodiversity.

So this planning application offers some olive branches to address this:

  • the car park will be open to members of the public at the weekend
  • “upgrades to the existing footpath and cycleway” – or rather no longer blocking the path which we claimed in 2021.
  • plant more native trees and species, and mitigate flood risk

No EV chargers or secure bike parking facilities though, so it is definitely not future-proofed.

If this planning application is not approved at the end of the month – will the car park be decommissioned, removed or just abandoned? Where will the Softcat commuters go? On the portal, there is already support from people on the Harleyford Estate (linked to Folbro Y Ltd?) and from Maidenhead & Wantage…

Who will the car parking benefit, really? Softcat, who provided the needs statement? The public, to visit the Country Park – but at what cost? Or the film studio out of usual hours, with a path linking to the main footpath that links to the heart of their monstrous proposal?

Commenting

You can add your comments via the planning portal or email planning.wyc@buckinghamshire.gov.uk with the planning reference number (one email per planning application). Don’t forget to add your name and address when you use this route. Save Marlow’s Greenbelt is seeking more information and considering its position on both proposals.

Marlow’s Newt Ditch flood prevention scheme significantly descoped

Announced in February 2021, but descoped in December 2022: Marlow’s Newt Ditch Flood Alleviation Scheme is being significantly descoped “due to the current economic climate”.

The presentations showed promising and idyllic scenes of a new & widened footpath alongside the stream.

Coming & now gone: the original proposed refurbishment of the footpath along the Newt Ditch

And what is the first to go? Public amenity improvements, such as the new, widened footpath and lighting to the footpaths. What a surprise – and a stark warning for when the economic reality inevitably meets the film studio plan.

Importantly, the scheme now also removes any work to the east of the “siphon structure”, near the Spinney Path at the south-western tip of Roach Lake in the Little Marlow Lakes Country Park. In the next 9 months, Jacobs intend to assess the flood risk in this area. The outcome of that will undoubtedly show that a film studio, if approved, represents a major concern.

Any flood alleviation work will be subject to planning consent (expected 2023/204) and is only to be expected to be finished “later in 2025”. That still means 2-3 years of misery for those who depend on the Newt Ditch for their flood protection in Marlow…

What ‘very special circumstances’? asks Bucks Council officer

In the last of our series on comments by Buckinghamshire Council officers, we look at the Policy comments – effectively the claimed “very special circumstances” (VSC) that would justify overriding the Green Belt status.

First, the officer questions why there is no mention of the benefits of developing “non-virgin Green Belt land” or any other community benefits, which would have been expected to be part of a VSC argument.

The officer also criticises the application’s so-called “sequential test”:

In terms of the sequential test they mention the damaged nature of land as a criteria – this is not part of [Green Belt] purpose – it is not about quality of an area or piece of land.  Virgin Green Belt sites are screened out because they would be similar to the application site, however, despite there having been some historic landfill on the site, I am not sure that this description applies to the application site aerial photography does not show it to look much different to neighbouring grassed fields. (…)
 On this basis [their] sifting would be different so you might want to ask them to redo the assessment ruling in all GB land and then availability etc..”

The application also misses some primary school maths: the documents state that they assessed 91 sites, but only 68 + 20 = 88 are listed in paragraph 5.24 of the Sequential Assessment Report.

Unsurprisingly, “the assessment table appears to lack detail in explaining why some sites [are] ruled out and is incorrect in many cases”.

The officer then lists several factual errors with land ruled out, which should actually have been considered. This includes several pieces of land claimed to be in the AONB but they are not (Wilton Park, Stoke Poges, West Taplow, Thorney Business Park). In some cases, these are actually close to a motorway, so arguably more accessible than Marlow’s Green Belt.

Needless to say, Guernsey-based Dido Property Limited are attempting to fudge the site selection process to end up with land that they own – not where a film studio project would be the most beneficial for the industry. Thankfully their mistakes and false assumptions make it so obvious to officers and every one of us.

Urban Design consultee comments: smoke & mirrors to hide ugly truth

As part of the series of comments by Buckinghamshire Council officers, there was a consultee comment regarding Urban Design & Landscape.

The officer agrees with much of the detail and conclusions set out by the Chilterns Conservation Board in their objection. The location for the proposed film studio is right next to the Chilterns AONB and currently being assessed for inclusion into an expanded AONB. On the other side of the Thames, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Local Plan “seeks to conserve and enhance the special character and visual amenity of the River Thames” (policy QP4). In conclusion: “on account of the function, scale and character of the proposed development”* it will cause significant harm and does not satisfy local plan policies.

Aside from these policy incompatibilities, the officer also highlights that the planning application deliberately tries to obfuscate the impact on the landscape:

“Photomontage View 3 demonstrates the significant harm to views from the Chilterns AONB broadly north / northeast of the site. (…) Photomontage View 9 also demonstrates a major incursion of commercial development into an otherwise intact rural landscape as seen from the Chilterns AONB overlooking the Thames Valley.”

“Photomontage View 8 would help illustrate this but is unhelpfully presented as a very wide angle panorama, which reduces detail and the perception of scale; there is no reason why this could not have been presented in the same manner as others in the set, (…)”

And the obfuscation is highlighted further down in more explicit terms:

“There is a variable approach to the horizontal angle of view and framing of photomontages which confuse and distort the perception of scale and impact of the proposed development. (…) Accompanied by the relatively low resolution of the images in the submitted PDF files, these do not fairly represent the proposed development and how it would be seen in the field.”

Equally, the “improvements” to the footpath between the A404 and Little Marlow are questioned:

“[The planning documents] and supporting photomontages demonstrate a profound change to the environment of this footpath where it passes through the site. There will be a loss of openness and views from the footpath, with a change of character from open rural landscape to a much more enclosed urban landscape. ‘Improvements’ to this right of way include surfacing and lighting that are likely to improve accessibility but ultimately diminish any sense of its existing rural character. (…) Such change to the user’s experience of the existing landscape is considered a major harmful effect. **The applicant suggests this is part of a positive contribution to the RUR4 outdoor recreation objective of a Country Park, but is in fact the opposite. ** “

Turning to landscape design, whereby the planning application tries to “blend in”:

“The principle of screening with planting to supposedly reduce visual harm is a universal approach by almost all developers and is not unique to this development. It is also a frequently harmful approach, as it overlooks the important contribution made to visual amenity by the open undeveloped landscape and views to other features or locations. Creating ‘green walls’ around development, and ‘green tunnels’ on routes through development are both harmful to visual amenity where the existing landscape is open and attractive.”

Also, the “green walls” on the warehouses are considered inadequate:

“The applicant proposes green walls to some of the taller buildings. I am not satisfied with the approach proposed – wires and climbing plants are not sufficiently substantial and do not qualify as a ‘green wall’ in the conventional sense. Of the five climbing plants proposed, only one (deciduous) plant is likely to achieve over 12 metres of height, and none will have any immediate impact.

What about the public space? Well, the officer is quite clear on that:

“The proposed ‘public art opportunity’ is intrusive and unwelcome. If nothing else, public art should be in a public or publically accessible space, which this is not. It appears to serve as no more than an advertisement/icon for the proposed development and serves no public interest.

“(…) I do not agree with the design approach for the Hub building. The [document] describes this as a building that will ‘engage the public’, but the design language says otherwise. “

In summary: Dido Property Limited’s planning application for the film studio will be a terrible eyesore that destroys the rural character of the area, the views from all angles and they try to hide with “green walls” that won’t work and photomontages that deliberately change the perception.

Save Marlow’s Greenbelt Auction is now live!

Our exciting online fundraising auction is now live and runs until 24th November. We have some great lots available, something for everyone starting from £5.

Please support SMG to raise much-needed funds by bidding for lots and grabbing some great Christmas gifts at the same time: https://www.jumblebee.co.uk/savemarlowsgreenbeltonlineauction2022

Big Little Marlow Dog Walk 22nd October

Come along with your furry friends on Saturday 22nd October to show support and find out more about the threat to our Greenbelt in Little Marlow. Make the most of this lovely green open space while you still can, explore the public, permissive and well-worn footpaths, plus discover what you can do to help protect it from inappropriate development.

The walk will start at around 10 am from Pound Lane in Little Marlow, making a loop through the Little Marlow Lakes Country Park area, using the network of footpaths. You can join the walk from the foot of the A404 footbridge at around 10.30 am. The walk should take around 60-90mins, depending on the route people wish to take on the day.

We analysed the representations on the planning portal. Here are the results.

With over 1800 documents on the planning portal and more arriving every day, it is easy to lose track and feel overwhelmed. Save Marlow’s Greenbelt volunteers looked at all the representations to date (14th October 2022) and sorted them for you. We extracted the position (object/support/neutral), the type of respondent (e.g. consultee or community organisation) and the postcode if it was available. In some cases, people self-identified as working in the film industry, or we checked their public professional records.

So what do the data tell us?

Objections > support

First of all, the objections vastly outnumber the support comments.

It is clear that the majority of locals do not want a film studio, whereas people from outside the area are generally in support. We spotted postcodes in Essex, London, Oxford, Bristol and Devon expressing their support. So the local people, who are supposed to be benefiting from the “opportunity that the film studios would offer”, have largely seen through the PR smoke & mirrors. (See e.g. our post on what a film studio really looks like.)

What is also striking is that none of the official consultees supports the scheme (10 object, 5 neutral) and none of the community organisations does either (23 object, 1 neutral).

What does support look like?

It is also interesting to understand how people are voicing their support. That’s mainly through the film studio website template:

Clearly, the only way to garner significant support for this scheme is to not require any effort or thought. Based on some of the postcodes and timestamps on those templated responses, it is likely that campaigners walked door to door to convince people to sign up (e.g. on Kingsmead Road in High Wycombe).

All objections submitted to date are unique and written by people like you, voicing their individual thoughts and concerns.

The industry view

Lastly, in this post, we look at people we have identified as working in the film industry. How do they vote?

Well, it’s reasonably simple. If you know what a film studio is like, you don’t want to live near one.

The portal is still open to objections, so please add yours if you have not already done so.

Hands off Our Country Park (press release)

Bucks Council jettisons Country Park plan. Marlow Residents and Campaigners respond.

Local Residents and campaigners fighting to preserve Marlow’s Greenbelt are challenging Bucks Council over changes to the status of the long-planned Little Marlow Lakes Country Park.

They believe that the switch in the Council’s policy – agreed upon in a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday (October 11) – risks weakening the protection from development that the area enjoyed previously.

The report to the Cabinet asserted that the plan for the Country Park, whose origins go back over fifty years, has no legal status. It acknowledges that the then-existing Wycombe District Council in October 2017 resolved to provide a Country Park under s.7(1) of the Countryside Act 1968 to be known as ‘Little Marlow Lakes Country Park’.

However, Bucks Council now argues that ‘the “designation” is (was) not completed’ because the now-defunct WDC failed to negotiate proper arrangements with other owners of land within the boundary of the proposed park.

The Council says it will take steps to develop a country park but the area considered in their new proposal covers only one-sixth of the 330 hectares originally identified.

Save Marlow’s Greenbelt believes that the reasoning behind the Council’s decision relies on an erroneous or mistaken interpretation of the legal situation.

The Council claims that their proposals have been examined by expert lawyers but the campaigners say that this legal advice has not been disclosed to the Cabinet members who were, therefore, unable to make an informed decision. The SMG group believes that at a minimum the Council should publish the advice and seek a second legal opinion.

Save Marlow’s Greenbelt are also concerned that the Council’s assessment of the Country Park’s legality may have been influenced by Dido Properties Ltd (Guernsey) who have openly challenged the Park’s status. This is the development company aggressively pursuing a plan for large-scale commercial development in what is currently Greenbelt land within the site originally selected for the Country Park.

Curiously, part of the illustration in the Council’s Report is credited to Dido Properties.

Dido Properties are assumed to be exceptionally well-informed about the status of the Country Park. The company has retained as a consultant, town planner Ms Penelope Tollitt, who in a previous existence was Head of Planning and Sustainability at Wycombe District Council. It was on Ms Tollitt’s watch at WDC that the plan for the Country Park – bungled or otherwise – was provided.

Local residents are extremely concerned that the park they have long been promised will now never happen. Martin Braint, from Little Marlow, said “The Council has neglected this area for many years and is now planning to fob us off with the bare minimum they need to comply with planning regulations – it feels like a real slap in the face.”

Sam Kershaw, a Little Marlow Parish Councillor said: “This beautiful area, bordered by the River Thames and The Chilterns AONB has enormous potential as a place for nature and recreation.

It is deeply concerning that the unitary council has decided to renege on the legitimate commitment they inherited from WDC to develop the entire Country Park.

The decision goes against the Council’s strategic priorities and completely disregards the benefits that the Park would provide for the community’s physical and mental health. It will now be more of a Country Garden than a Country Park.”

SMG Chairman Richard Sherwin commented: “The Bucks Council are effectively encouraging inappropriate development in the Greenbelt by giving developers ammunition for their case. We will use all lawful means to prevent this”