How planning permission from 50 years ago could see a bungalow built in South Ribble woodland

Controversial plans to build a bungalow in ancient woodland in South Ribble have been left in limbo - because of the possibility that planning permission granted half a century ago for a bigger dwelling could finally be utilised if the latest proposal is blocked.

Thursday, 5th August 2021, 10:22 am
Updated Thursday, 5th August 2021, 10:24 am

South Ribble Borough Council’s planning committee was unable to reach a decision over an application to develop a single-storey property in Holland Wood in Walton-le-Dale.

Members heard that such a plan - for a biological heritage site within the greenbelt - would struggle to get the green light in the modern day had it not been for a larger dwelling still being on the table from 50 years ago.

The permission granted in 1971 by the then soon-to-be-defunct Preston Rural District Council would allow for the construction of a bungalow almost half as big again as the one now being put forward.

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Holland Wood lies beyond The Vineyard cul-de-sac in Walton-le-Dale (image: Neil Cross)

While that blueprint was never brought to life, a lawful development certificate was issued by South Ribble Borough Council in 2012 to confirm that a legal start had previously been made on the site - meaning that the original approval remains active five decades later.

Ben Pycroft, the agent for applicant Iain Fowler, told a meeting of the committee that there was now “no scenario whereby the site remains undeveloped”.

In recommending approval of the current scheme - subject to an agreement to rescind the 50-year-old permission - planning officer Catherine Lewis said that the so-called “fallback position” of the 1971 design put a different complexion on what was being proposed today.

“It would be a smaller scheme [and] there would be quite a lot of conditions [placed on the development].

The wider Holland Wood, not part of the application site (image: Neil Cross)

“As officers, it would never be anybody's intention to recommend approval for any kind of residential development in [this] location. However, there is a live planning permission that...could be started tomorrow with absolutely no conditions,” Ms. Lewis explained.

The suggested stipulations included the removal of so-called “permitted development” rights - which allow for some additions to a property without express planning permission - and conditions relating to the construction of the dwelling. Revisions to the latest plan to reduce the size of the curtilage around the property - which would be located in a clearing - have also been made at the council’s request.

Mr. Pycroft - a director of Emery Planning - acknowledged that the proposal was the product of an “unusual set of circumstances”.

“If planning permission was refused for the scheme now before you, then the applicant would have no option but to pursue the approved [1971] scheme through to competition, as he is committed to living at the site with his family who are already rooted within the local community.

“The proposed scheme is undoubtedly better than the approved scheme in environmental terms, with net benefit in terms of the openness of the greenbelt, biodiversity, flood risk and the integrity of the woodland,” Mr. Pycroft added.

In papers presented to the committee, the council’s ecology consultants acknowledge that the habitat within the proposed development site “does not have the characteristics of ancient or semi-natural woodland...and the predominant habitat is species poor neutral grassland”.

They go on to state that the proposed plot has been “sensitively located” so as not to significantly adversely affect the integrity of the biological heritage site - and note that any removal of trees would largely be as a result of their poor condition rather than to enable construction.

While the council’s ecology department concluded that there were "no grounds" to sustain an objection to the plan, it warned that the peculiar circumstances of the application should not set a precedent for development in similar habitats.

However, the Woodland Trust said that even the revised plans would “still result in damage to Holland Wood...an irreplaceable habitat”.

The Environment Agency is currently maintaining an objection to the plans until it is convinced that a “workable solution” has been found to mitigate flood risk. Mr. Pycroft said “minor technical details” on that matter were currently being addressed.

Speaking on behalf of all bar one of the eleven households in the gated community of “The Vineyard” - a private road off Chorley Road, via which the proposed dwelling would be accessed - Simon Keely said that ancient woodland was a “scarce commodity” in need of defending.

“I think these days we are a little bit more aware...and considerate about the environment and sustainability than maybe we were in the 1970s. There is rarely a day goes by when you don't see David Attenborough or Greta Thunberg on the television telling us that it’s up to us [and that] we are able to stop irreparable damage to the environment - so we need to protect this woodland."

David Dunlop, area conservation officer for Central and Western Lancashire at the Wildlife Trust, said that the organisation's objection to the proposal was “one of principle”.

“We find ourselves in an invidious position where we have to choose between a 1970s planning application...and this less bad but far from ideal application.”

Several committee members made it clear that they felt like they had been placed in a similar quandary by the quizzical scenario presented to them.

Committee chair Caleb Tomlinson said that he and his colleagues had been dealt a “pig in a poke” which left them “damned if we do and damned if we don’t”.

Others were more categorical - although they often came down on different sides of the fence.

Cllr Caroline Moon made a direct plea to the applicant to “look at everything we know about our environment [and] everything we’re being told about how we need to protect [it]”.

“We have an ancient woodland there - it is such a precious thing. I wasn't here in the past to do anything about [the permission granted in 1971], but I am sat here [now] and I do not have to give approval to a development in the greenbelt, in a special biodiversity area, in an ancient woodland - I don't have to put my name to that.”

However, Cllr James Flannery said that local residents “can’t win on this one, because of the history of the site”.

“If [we] refuse it, you're going to get a bigger property built in more or less the same environment. If we approve it, you're going to get a more considered, modern development,” Cllr Flannery said.

Cllr Gareth Watson said that residents appeared to want the committee to take the “risk” of refusing the proposal in the hope that the applicant would not build the bungalow approved 50 years ago.

Meanwhile, Cllr Barrie Yates alighted on the fact that the original proposal was located just 11 metres from the River Darwen, whereas the current application was 25m back from the river bank - and he challenged Mr. Fowler to build the previously-approved scheme.

“I’d give it about two years before it’s washed down into the river...because it wouldn’t be viable to build a house on that piece of that land, that is why it has to be moved,” Cllr Yates said.

Ultimately, the complexity of the application was reflected in the process of voting on it.

When it came to a vote on the recommended approval, it was lost - with six members against, five members in favour and one abstention.

However, during a subsequent vote on an amendment to refuse the application, the abstainer on approval - Cllr Chris Lomax - came out as definitively against refusal. That meant the vote was tied six apiece and left Cllr Tomlinson with the casting vote as chair - which he used to vote against refusal.

That twist led to the remarkable quirk of the committee having declined to approve the application - but also having decided against refusing it.

The council's legal officer explained that it put the proposal in a state of “non-determination”.

Applicants have the right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate if a local authority has not reached a decision on a proposal within between eight and 13 weeks of it being submitted, depending on the nature of the development. That would lead to the matter being decided by a planning inspector at a public inquiry.

However, as things stand, approval has not been granted for the latest bungalow proposal in Holland Wood - and the 1971 permission remains in place.