Thursday, June 25, 2009

More on the Pool Quay 'argae'

Last week, I posted on the Inspector's Report in respect of two appeals concerning the raising of a flood embankment at Pool Quay, near Welshpool in Montgomeryshire. Reason was that I thought it a very important judgement on a complex and long drawn out dispute. The Report allowed the more important appeal, and awarded full costs to the appellant. It also criticised the Environment Agency in a unusually strong way. There are several aspects of this Report which I reckon are especially important, and merit further action. But first a bit of preamble.

The saga began when the owner of a listed property raised the level of a flood embankment (argae) without seeking any sort of formal permission. At the time, I assumed that permissions were required, and thought that just raising the embankment regardless was not in order. Around 30 property owners in the Pool Quay area protested because they believed that the raised argae would increase the risk of their properties being flooded. The 30 property owners sought the help of the local MP and AM, and I was kept fully informed by two of the 'protesters' who are good friends of mine. I was briefed by the 'other side' as well, but declined to become involved in helping them because of my aforementioned friendships. Though not actively involved, I maintained a close interest, because of what I saw as the importance of the issue. Following much ado, a planning application was submitted and refused. Eventually it ended up in court, where the owner of the listed building and his representative lost the case. Mr Till was even convicted of a criminal offence. I thought it was all over. But Mr Till appealed - much to my surprise. The costs must have been huge, and I did not expect his appeal to succeed. But succeed it did.

Now to the issues that make this an important judgement by the Inspector. Firstly, the Inspector concluded that the Environment Agency had acted unlawfully and unreasonably - and awarded full costs to the appellant, several hundreds of thousands of pounds. He was brutal in his judgement - though one of my friends wrote to Hilary Benn, commending the EA. Another reader of the report told me that he thought that the EA had been harshly treated. Well, maybe. Personally, I cannot see how I can possibly be in a position to challenge the Inspector's opinion of the EA's case and presentation. And secondly, and more significantly, the Inspector placed the importance of protecting an important listed building ahead of restricting flood risk for several other properties. I accept that the degree of impact will have come into his judgement, but I was very surprised indeed by this.

I do not know if this saga is over, but there are several outstanding questions. Does the raising of the argae still require planning permission? If the Planning Authority were to approve an application which it had previously refused, would there be a case for referral to the Ombudsman? How does this judgement fit into the Assembly Government's flood risk policies? What changes will be made to systems within the Environment Agency to ensure that such failures (at least in my assessment) do not happen again? If I was still an Assembly Member I would have tabled an 'Urgent Question' immediately the Report was published, and several Written Questions of the Minister. If I was an MP, I would have written immediately to the appropriate Minister and Chair of the Environment Agency, as well as asking written questions. Perhaps Messrs Opik and Bates have done just this. Making some intervention (in an unrelated debate) would not be anything like good enough. Regrettably, I do not expect much media coverage, but in my opinion, this is an issue of national importance. It cannot be allowed to lie where it is.

1 comment:

lads said...

For those of us who called in at the Inquiry (even briefly) during the October hearings it was clear that the EA was all over the place - and I'm not at all surprised that there has been a full award of costs. The frightening thing is that the same EA "team" is still in place passing judgement on planning applications not just here in Powys but presumably in much of the West Midlands as well. The same "process" is still presumably being used in those offices in Solihull to make decisions.
You're right Glyn, questions need to be asked and politicians should be pressing for answers. I doubt very much whether those two you mention would even understand what the issues are!