BSCF objections to proposed move of South Street surgery to Silver Leys

Letter to The Planning Inspectorate in response to the appeal made by the appellants, Care Capital, against the decision, taken by East Herts District Council on 25 September 2012, to refuse planning permission.

The letter below shows the contents of this letter sent on 12 November 2012.

Planning Inspectorate
Room 3/01 Kite Wing
Temple Quay House
2 The Square
Bristol
BS1 6PN
12 November 2012
SILVER LEYS, HADHAM ROAD, BISHOP'S STORTFORD, HERTS CM23 2QE
LPA Ref: 3/12/0448/FP
PINS Ref: APP/J1915/A/12/2185045/NWF

1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation to make representations in connection with this appeal. I am also enclosing two previous letters of objection to this proposal dated 3 May 2012 and 15 May 2012 and signed by my predecessor, David Fitzpatrick. This letter supplements and amplifies those objections in the light of the reasons given for the refusal of planning permission by East Herts District Council (EHDC) and the grounds for the appeal which the appellants have lodged. It starts with a summary of the reasons which we believe justify refusing this appeal, with the remainder of the letter providing the detailed argumentation in support of those reasons.

Summary of Reasons for Refusal

2. The reasons for refusal are as follows:

The Need For the Facility

3. While it is open to developers to apply for any kind of development anywhere, regardless of whether or not they are the owners of the site in question, the purpose of this application is to meet the specific requirements of one of the medical practices in the town – the South Street Surgery. In our view therefore, the Inspector, when considering the merits of this appeal, must take account of the specific requirements of the practice and its patients and not simply view this as a speculative development for which a demand might exist at some time in the future.

4. For this reason, we suggest that the Inspector should disregard the suggestion in para 15.0 of the appellants’ grounds of appeal that prospective development to the north of the town might lead to an improvement in public transport services to the Silver Leys site. The practice has said publicly that it has no ambition to expand and the Economic Statement submitted in support of the application makes it clear that the proposals will not lead to any increase in the number of medically qualified staff employed. The appeal should be determined on the basis of the adequacy of existing public transport arrangements and the existing distribution of the patient population of the practice. Speculation about possible future developments and their impacts should be dismissed as irrelevant.

5. Having regard to the needs of the practice and its patients, we entirely agree with the appellants that their existing premises in South Street are not fit for purpose. We further understand that the lease on those premises is due to expire in about four years time. This means that the offer by the appellants to provide a satellite surgery in the town centre for the next four years should be disregarded as a material consideration in connection with this appeal for two reasons. Firstly, buildings which are not fit for purpose as a surgery now will not miraculously become fit for purpose when they are described as a satellite, with the main activity of the practice being conducted elsewhere. They will still be unsuitable. Secondly, once the lease on the property expires the practice will have no town centre presence and will be under no obligation to move to a new town centre site. We can confidently expect that they will consolidate their activities on a single site and justify doing so for reasons of their own operational convenience.

6. We do, however, question the need for the practice to move from its Bishop’s Park site. Although some shortcomings in the building have been highlighted, it is only about 20 years old, has ample free car parking through being on the same site as a supermarket and, for the same reason, has an adjacent pharmacy with extended opening hours. It is also the terminus of a regular bus service (the 308) which serves the main residential areas of the town. If the appellants had conducted a property search only for new accommodation for their town centre activities there would have been in the past, and there still are today, suitable candidate buildings in the town centre which could either be adapted or replaced to meet this more limited requirement.

7. Nevertheless, since the practice has to vacate one of its buildings in the near future, and continues to believe that no single town centre site would accommodate all its requirements, then the question arises as to whether the plan for Silver Leys is either suitable or the most suitable proposal available for the purpose. We believe it is not.

8. National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)

The NPPF now sets the national framework within which individual planning decisions should be taken. There are a number of statements in it which are relevant to this appeal which are set out in italics below with our comments on their relevance appended.

‘6. The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. The policies in paragraphs 18 to 219, taken as a whole, constitute the Government’s view of what sustainable development in England means in practice for the planning system.’

‘7. There are three dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social and environmental….

Comment Our contention is that the facilities proposed in this appeal are not accessible, in comparison either with the existing premises of the practice, or with a viable alternative at Tanners Wharf which has been granted planning permission.

‘11. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.’

Comment The point is repeated at para 196 of the NPPF. The proposals under consideration are not in accordance with the local plan adopted in 2007. The site in question has not been earmarked for the suggested purpose of a medical centre. There are no material considerations which might suggest that the appeal should not be determined in accordance with the local plan.

‘214. For 12 months from the day of publication, decision-takers may continue to give full weight to relevant policies adopted since 2004 even if there is a limited degree of conflict with this Framework.’

Comment The NPPF was published in March 2012. EHDC and the Inspector are therefore entitled to give full weight to the policies in the local plan which were saved prior to its nominal expiry date of 2011.

‘17. Within the overarching roles that the planning system ought to play, a set of core land-use planning principles should underpin both plan-making and decision-taking.

Comment Two of the core planning principles – the ones highlighted above – have been ignored in this case. The Silver Leys proposal is for development of a greenfield site on the very edge of the built up area of the town. Not only have brownfield development opportunities been ignored by seeking to locate virtually the whole of the practice on this one site; the proposals also take no account of the fact that a brownfield site has been both identified and given planning permission at Tanners Wharf which would obviate the need for this development.

The Silver Leys proposal is a significant development proposal. In comparison with the existing locations of the practice and in comparison with Tanners Wharf, it minimises and will actively discourage the use of sustainable forms of transport and force both staff and patients to use private cars or taxis. Since this is the reason given for refusal of planning permission we deal with the point more fully at paras 16 - 27 below.

‘23. Planning policies should be positive, promote competitive town centre environments…

‘24. Local planning authorities should apply a sequential test to planning applications for main town centre uses that are not in an existing centre and are not in accordance with an up-to-date Local Plan.’

Comment The appellants argue in para 6.0 of their grounds of appeal that there is no planning policy requirement for health centre development to comply with the sequential test, ie for all town and edge of centre sites to be explored before out of centre sites are considered. The extracts from the NPPF quoted above concern promoting the vitality of town centres and included in the list of activities to be supported are sites needed for community purposes. The saved policies in EHDC’s adopted local plan include among the list of community facilities (in paras 10.1.3 and 10.12.1) health care centres. The South Street Surgery currently provides a health care centre in the town centre. Such provision plays an important part in maintaining the commercial vitality of a town centre. People who come there for a medical appointment will often want to combine that visit with a trip to the shops or the Post Office and the results of their medical appointment may well involve a visit to a town centre pharmacy. If the medical centre is relocated to the edge of town, the shopping may also be displaced to an edge of town retail park to the detriment of the town centre. It is clear that a sequential test should have been made in identifying a suitable site for a replacement medical centre. The appellants have not carried out such a test and the Silver Leys site would fail to satisfy it.

‘32. All developments that generate significant amounts of movement should be supported by a Transport Statement or Transport Assessment. Plans and decisions should take account of whether:

‘34. Plans and decisions should ensure developments that generate significant movement are located where the need to travel will be minimised and the use of sustainable transport modes can be maximised.’

Comment A medical centre will generate a significant amount of movement. The Silver Leys location does not minimise the need to travel and fails to enable users to gain safe and suitable access by sustainable forms of transport. A fuller discussion of the issues is at paras 16 - 27 below.

It is clear from the analysis above that there are significant aspects of the NPPF with which the Silver Leys proposals do not and cannot comply. Also relevant, since full account of them can be taken until next March, are the saved policies in the EHDC local plan which was adopted in 2007.

9. Local Plan Policies

Saved policies in the local plan are generally compatible with and reinforce the relevant policies in the NPPF. We assume that the Inspector will be examining these in the course of reaching a decision and rather than quoting them at length we would refer in particular to the following with which the Silver Leys proposals do not comply:

10. However, there is one further policy in the local plan which we set out in full because it requires more detailed examination. This is policy LRC 11 – Retention of community facilities. It is as follows:

‘Proposals which will result in the loss of community facilities will be refused unless:

  1. a. suitable alternative facilities are provided on site, in the locality or relevant catchment area; or
  2. b. it can be demonstrated that the facility is no longer needed and that there is insufficient demand to make an alternative community facility viable.’

11. The accompanying text makes it clear that this policy applies, inter alia, to health care facilities and it is therefore applicable to this appeal which claims to be providing suitable alternative facilities. Clearly condition b. of the policy does not apply in this case. The facility is still needed and there is ample demand for it. The question is therefore whether the application satisfies condition a. of the policy. The proposal does not involve provision of replacement facilities on site. The Bishop’s Park medical centre will be closed. The South Street surgery will be retained only on a temporary basis with no guarantee of a replacement in the town centre when the lease expires. The building is in any case no longer fit for purpose and so its temporary retention should not be regarded as a satisfactory component of the overall development proposal. The proposals do not therefore comply with this part of the policy.

12. The second possibility is replacement in the locality. Silver Leys is about half a mile away from the Bishop’s Park site but over a mile away from the South Street Surgery. The appellants might argue that it is within the locality of Bishops Park. However, this ignores the fact that Bishops Park is surrounded by residential development whereas Silver Leys is at present largely bordered by open countryside, and the housing which is nearby is in the least densely developed part of Bishop's Stortford. So even if it is regarded as being in the same geographical locality, this plainly cannot be the case if proximity to residents who may be patients forms part of the criterion. Silver Leys is an ‘edge of the built up area’ site. It is not within the locality of the town centre South Street Surgery. The proposals do not therefore comply with his part of the policy.

13. The third possibility is that the Silver Leys site falls within the relevant catchment area. In an attempt to demonstrate this the appellants, in para 2.7 of their supplementary transport assessment of June 2012, have produced a map which purports to show the site in the middle of a catchment area which seems to be projected as approximately a 5 mile radius from the site. The first point to note is that this area includes large amounts of open countryside with only a few small villages. By contrast, the same map shows that the site is on the very edge of the built up area of Bishop's Stortford from which the vast majority of patients will be drawn. The existing premises of the practice are much more conveniently located. Since the practice has no plans to expand, the relevant catchment area is not an arbitrary boundary drawn on a map, but should be defined by where patients registered with the practice actually live. For this reason the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation in its letter of objection of 3 May asked that information be provided about how many patients lived within 2km of one or other of the existing surgeries, compared with how many would live within 2km of Silver Leys. Whether or not EHDC requested that information of the scheme promoters, it has never been provided and we would invite the Inspector to draw the obvious inference that it has not been provided because it would show many fewer patients living within 2 km of Silver Leys, compared with the existing surgeries. Indeed the topography of the town alone makes this the inevitable conclusion.

14. We therefore ask the Inspector to conclude that the proposal does not satisfy the requirements of saved policy LRC 11 and that permission should accordingly be refused. Although both the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation and the Bishop's Stortford Town Council drew attention to non-compliance with this policy in their objections to the proposal, the report by EHDC officers ignores the point entirely, and councillors on the Development Control Committee should perhaps be forgiven for not including this among their reasons for refusal.

15. However, the issue of accessibility, which the Council did give as its reason for refusal, is clearly relevant to the underlying intention of saved policy LRC 11 and we therefore now turn to the shortcomings in the appellants’ transport assessment.

Transport Assessment

16. The appellants produced two transport assessments in March and June 2012. We concentrate here on those aspects of the assessments which consider accessibility by sustainable forms of transport. The March assessment correctly summarises the objectives of the local plan’s transport chapter as being

‘to support the development of an integrated transport system necessary to sustain the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of East Hertfordshire, to reduce the rate of growth in traffic, to locate development where it will enable fewer and shorter journeys to be made, to minimise traffic generated by new development and to prioritise the provision of modes of transport other than the car’.

17. This approach is entirely consistent with the sustainable transport objectives of the NPPF, quoted at para 8, extracts 32 and 34 above.

18. It should be remembered that patients needing to visit a medical centre are likely, in terms of personal mobility, to be untypical of the population at large. Parents with young children and elderly and disabled people will constitute a disproportionately high percentage of users, and they will have a variety of mobility impairments which may mean they either have no access to a car or are not in a position to drive a car if they have access to one. Even the fit and healthy part of the adult population may similarly not find the car an option for travel to the surgery if illness or injury (the normal reasons for making such a visit) would make it unsafe or impractical for them to drive. Similar considerations will make cycling an unrealistic option for surgery visits and Bishop's Stortford is in any case very poorly served by dedicated cycle routes.

19. This means that generalised formulae about proximity to a bus stop and availability of cycle paths which frequently accompany planning applications are not an adequate way of testing this development proposal for purposes of sustainable transport. Frequent bus services and short walking distances to the principal residential areas are essential requirements for patients. A travel plan is not a substitute for these requirements.

20. As explained in paras 13 and 14 above, the site is extremely poorly located in comparison with the alternatives for patients who might be able to and wish to walk to the surgery.

21. It will be seen from para 5.6 of the March assessment and the bus timetables attached to the June assessment that services 700 and 351 which pass the Silver Leys site operate at two hourly frequencies. Moreover, they travel through Bishop's Stortford on the main roads (Dunmow Road and Hadham Road) which bypass the main residential areas of the town. They could not possibly be regarded as providing an adequate public transport service for patients. Medical appointments are precisely timed and generally last 15 minutes or less.

22. The appellants’ reasoning about the supposed adequacy of public transport is further undermined by the statement in para 5.10 of the March assessment that

‘Whilst the accessibility of the proposed development is not as good in terms of service frequencies and destinations served as the South Street Surgery, the level of service is considered to be sufficient for the needs of the site and it should be noted that the accessibility to public transport is no worse than the Bishops Park Health Centre site which is also served by No. 351 and 700.’

The South Street Surgery, being next to the bus station, is served by all the bus services in town. The Bishops Park Surgery is also served by the 308 bus service and is therefore significantly better served than the Silver Leys site. Since the appellants seem to be unaware of this fact, I am attaching the current timetable to this letter. The Inspector will see that it runs at half hourly intervals or more frequently throughout the day, directly serves the residential areas of Bishops Park, Thorley Park and the Parsonage Estate and also runs close to the Havers Estate, the most deprived ward with the lowest level of car ownership in Bishop's Stortford.

23. The public transport provision at Silver Leys is grossly inferior to the service to both Bishops Park and the town centre. It is also grossly inferior to the service to Tanners Wharf. The 308 service stops within 50 metres of the entrance to the site on its eastbound journey and about 200 metres on its westbound journey.

24. In mitigation, the appellants (para 2.13 of their June assessment) have offered a financial contribution to improving the bus stops in Hadham Road which, in the absence of a frequent bus service, is about as useful as re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In para 1.5 of their June transport assessment the appellants rule out the diversion of bus services as follows

‘Whilst a separate discussion and investigation into the diversion of existing bus services did take place in liaison with Mr French from Herts County Council’s Passenger Transport Section we were advised that the cost of any service diversion would need to be pump primed by the applicant at a cost of c£250,000 per annum for 5 years. As a health care provider this cost would be prohibitive to the development which could not therefore be able to proceed.’

In other words, the only action which might contribute to sustainable access to the Silver Leys site is ruled out on grounds of commercial viability. However, moving the activity from accessible sites to an inaccessible site comes at a cost. By not providing sustainable access, the developers are simply proposing that the costs which they are not prepared to shoulder should be met instead by patients through taxi fares, or car fuel, for those who are fortunate enough to be able to drive. The proposed development, by not meeting the needs of patients for easy access by sustainable forms of transport, would not be viable operationally.

25. It should be noted that while Herts Highways advice concluded (mistakenly in our view) that there were no fundamental objections they also said that where the application did give cause for concern was the location in terms of accessibility by public transport and other sustainable modes. At the time of those comments, discussion about diversion of bus routes had not been concluded. Now that the discussion has concluded that diversion is not commercially viable, that suggests to us that the Highways Authority’s concerns on this ground have not been resolved and that EHDC’s decision to refuse permission on grounds of poor accessibility was entirely justified.

26. It follows therefore that we believe that the Inspector should attach no weight to the arguments in paras 7.0 to 11.0 of the appellants’ grounds of appeal concerning the accessibility of the Silver Leys site.

27. Finally under this heading, it should be noted that, not only is this proposal wholly inadequate in terms of the accessibility needs of patients, but it is also greatly inferior from this perspective to the alternative at Tanners Wharf for which permission has been granted.

Conclusion

28. The town does not need two such facilities and planning permission has already been granted for a medical centre at Tanners Wharf, a location which largely overcomes the accessibility objections to Silver Leys. The practice needs to be encouraged to look afresh at the opportunity which Tanners Wharf provides. A state of the art medical centre at Silver Leys will be a white elephant if the patients who most need to use it cannot get to it. The practice have been in negotiation with the appellants for many years about relocating to Silver Leys. They will find the temptation to move there irresistible, even though it is in the wrong place, unless this appeal is refused.

29. I should be grateful to receive a copy of the Inspector’s decision letter.

John Rhodes
Chairman