SBC rejects ombudsman’s Earlston planning findings

SCOTTISH Borders Council has hit out at Scotland’s top public service complaints investigator after he called on the local authority to apologise to an Earlston housing developer, writes Kenny Paterson.

Ombudsman Jim Martin agreed with A & R Brownlie that SBC’s planning department had been guilty of maladministration in its inconsistent approach to the repositioning and height of an access drive at the new Earlston High School.

But a council spokesman told TheSouthern that Mr Martin’s draft report contained “serious deficiencies” which were not addressed in his final findings, and promised to take up its concerns with the ombudsman.

He went on: “The SPSO’s (Scottish Public Services Ombudsman) own planning adviser confirmed that the council followed the correct procedures in its handling of the case.

“The adviser did not make any recommendation that SBC should change its procedures, and in these circumstances the council does not believe the conclusions of the SPSO can reasonably be drawn from the available evidence.

“We will be discussing this matter further with the SPSO.”

The row started after Brownlie submitted an application for 24 homes on the Old Sawmill site in 2004, which was followed in 2006 by plans for a new secondary school in Earlston on adjacent land at East End. Both applications were later approved by the council.

In 2007, structural engineers applied for construction consent for a road to the school, which included a realigned access to the north-east of the site and “significant” changes to the boundaries of the school.

However, the engineers failed to notify Brownlie, according to Mr Martin.

This later led the company to contact SBC to argue that “insufficient and unsatisfactory scrutiny of the substantial and significant change to the scale and position of the access road and the bus turning area had had, and would have, a direct bearing on the economic viability and potential timescale for selling the houses on Firm A’s [Brownlie’s} adjacent development”.

An SBC planning officer replied that: “...the access road and bus turning area were further away from Firm A’s site than had been approved and that, as no levels were specified in the original drawings, there had been no resultant change in terms of the planning approval.”

Solicitors acting for Brownlie wrote to former SBC chief executive David Hume in February 2010, claiming the elevation of the road did not have planning permission.

The solicitors also indicated that it would cost £275,000 to raise land on the Old Sawmill site ito solve “overlooking and overshadowing” from the new school access road into its houses.

In an initial complaint to the ombudsman in March last year, Brownlie’s lawyers sought a contribution towards the cost of the proposed land raising project or compensation for loss to the value of its properties, seven of which have so far been built.

That was rejected by Mr Martin, but a second complaint aimed at receiving an apology from SBC on the access issue, and seeking a change in the way the council deals with applications for approval of matters specified in planning conditions, was upheld.

While SBC disputes Mr Martin’s findings, local councillor John Paton-Day called for a change to the current planning procedure.

“They may seem like small details but they are massive to the little estate on the Old Sawmill site. The height of the road is significant,” said Mr Paton-Day, who is putting together a council motion to consider improving the planning system.

He added: “The planning procedures are heavily weighted against the objectors. We are heading more and more towards a rush, rush approach.

“I am not surprised this has happened and I am pleased someone has made the effort to put in a serious objection of this type, despite it not being an entirely satisfactory conclusion.”

Sandy Brownlie, a Brownlie director, did not want to comment.