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Raynes Park and West Barnes Residents' Association
Serving the community since 1928

Royal and Sun alliance sportsfield

Reasons for Merton Council's refusal of the planning application for the site

In the March edition of "The Guide", I wrote about Merton Council's decision to refuse the outline planning application for this site. It was to provide 69 houses, with retention of some sporting facilities on part of the field.

I can now provide details of the formal reasons for that decision. Be warned that some of what follows is rather technical. This is mainly intended for those who live close to the field, and particularly for those who submitted objections to the application. I thought it would be worth providing chapter and verse on this (in slightly paraphrased form) in case another similar application comes along. If it does, I hope the following will be useful.

Grounds for refusal

  1. The proposals would result in an unacceptable loss of open space, and would be inappropriate development on a "greenfield" site in conflict with the following policies of the Unitary Development Plan (UDP) adopted in October 2003:
  2. The development would result in an irretrievable loss of a substantial proportion (taken to be about 33%) of the existing sports and recreational facilities, with insufficient compensatory sports or recreational benefits, in conflict with UDP policies:
  3. The siting and layout of the proposed dwellings would result in an unacceptable form of development, which would fail to reflect locally distinctive patterns of development or provide convenient pedestrian and cycle routes, in conflict with UDP policy BE16 - Local List, Rehabilitation and Maintenance.

I need to add a few explanatory comments on the above. The two PPG Notes (which are central government guidance to local planning authorities) played a major part in the consideration of this application.

The guidance in PPG3 requires an LPA to consider whether they can achieve their housing target by firstly making use of previously-developed land, sometimes called "brownfield", and only when that is not possible, to make use of "greenfield" sites. There is no doubt that Merton Council can meet these targets - and in fact are exceeding them - by use of "brownfield" sites.

PPG17 relates very largely to sportsfields, and in particular to those with playing pitches. Although there is scope for some built development on sportsfields - regardless of whether privately- or publicly-owned - the guidance is clear on what type of, and how much, built development is permitted. Without going into all the detail, I can tell you that the application was in serious conflict with the guidance note, particularly on the size of the housing development. The housing would have taken up at least a third of the field and probably more, which is well beyond what could reasonably be allowed.

Those of you who submitted objections to the application might care to note that neither traffic nor flooding issues were listed among the reasons for refusal. The council's Traffic Department did have concerns about a probable increased flow of traffic in Fairway, Linkway and Church Walk. However - and this is the point to note - they concluded that, based on their predictions, the likely levels of congestion and inconvenience were not such as to justify objecting to the proposals.

One noteworthy aspect of the way Merton's Planning Department dealt with this application is that they held back from making a final decision until the outcome of the LESSA appeal - which was refused. The reasoning behind this was, of course, that if the RSA application was refused and the applicant put in an appeal, because of the strong similarities between the two applications, it was very probable that an appeal against the RSA decision would also be refused. This is conjecture on my part, I admit, but I am sure this is how the Planning Department looked at it.

Many of those who objected to the application referred to the history of flooding across the sportsfield, particularly in winter. The issue of flooding risk, not just on this site but everywhere, is much less clear than we would wish.

The responsibility for this rests largely with the Environment Agency (EA), who are the guardians of knowledge on this subject. The present position is that the maps produced by the EA of what they rather vaguely call the floodplain include areas across a whole range of risk from high to almost nil, and - just to confuse us all - also include areas which are recorded as having experienced some flooding in the past, but which may no longer be at risk! You may well ask - in that case, what use are these maps? The short answer is - at face value, not a lot.

For each planning application which shows up on the maps as being in the indicative floodplain, it is necessary to consult the EA as to what they regard as the actual level of risk at present, if indeed any. In the case of this application, Merton's Planning Department duly did this, and discovered that the level of risk on the part of the site where the new housing would be was not such as to justify an objection to residential development On some other parts of the field, an objection to housing would have been quite likely.

You will see from this that the EA have, in their records, much more detail about levels of risk in different areas than is currently available in published form. They are hoping to provide more detailed maps later this year, but everything takes longer than expected with this body. I hope you can see why flooding risk did not feature among the reasons for refusal.

By way of general explanation, let me point out that with any large-scale planning application, it is important to remember that where the council is minded to refuse, they must consider the possibility of an appeal and weigh up the chances of their refusal decision being upheld. It is in this light that the stated reasons for refusal are best restricted to those which are firmly grounded on either local or national planning policies or both - as they were in this case - and which will stand a good prospect of being defended at an appeal hearing. To include reasons which are uncertain or leave room for argument could weaken the case for the local planning authority.

The concerns about potential traffic congestion fell precisely into this latter category, and were better not stated as a reason for refusal in a situation where there were several other grounds on which there was unambiguous conflict with the planning guidance. I have no doubt that if an appeal had been made against the refusal decision, the council would have been in a very strong position to defend it.

There may be some comfort to be drawn from the consideration of this case. It could be that the flooding risk to those living around the area is not as strong as some had feared. We can only hope that the whole of the ground will be preserved for outdoor sport. If it remains essentially as a "greenfield" site, that in itself should help alleviate the flooding risk.

I listed the grounds for refusal as provided by the council, and included the UDP policy numbers. Only last October, the council completed work on the UDP, and are now charged with the task of working on a new one, to be called a Local Development Framework, which will take three years or more. With this new plan, the text of the policies may or may not change very much, but the numbering system almost certainly will. I quoted the policy numbers mainly for the record, but on balance it would probably be advisable, for the future, to ignore them.

David Freeman