Taxpayers set for legal bill after planners reject reservoir plans

Olympian Louis Smith

Last week at a meeting of Wealden District Council’s [WDC] Planning Committee [North], council officers urged members to approve plans to turn the disused fishing hut in Bewl Water, near to Lamberhurst, into four holiday apartments.

The lodge has sat unused for six years and is set to collapse, but Bewl’s owners had plans to save the building by converting it into a holiday apartment for anglers to raise much needed money to maintain the reservoir– the largest inland open body in the South East. A similar plan had been proposed in 2015 and was granted planning permission.

Council officers told the committee last week [Thursday, January 3] that the plans were ‘compliant with national and local planning policy’ for the leisure destination. But a rejection, proposed by Green Party councillor, Patricia Patterson-Vanegas [Forest Row], was put forward based on the impact on the AONB, loss of water-based amenities and the effect the plan would have on the district’s ‘dark skies’.

The committee was told that rejecting the plan on those grounds would leave Wealden District Council at risk of legal action.

Mr Robins warned the panel: “I think there are problems with the reasons for refusal and there is a risk in us not being able to defend those reasons. “The impact on the ecology of Bewl Water has not been proven and the change of use is fully compliant with the policy and guidance.”

He added: “We will not win a refusal reason based on ecological impact. The expert view of our ecologist is that there is not a problem here so I would urge caution to refuse it in that regard.”

He went on: “A refusal anchored around the loss of water-based amenities has a better chance, but I’ve got to state it is a weak reason to refuse the application as we have previously granted one so would have to explain to a Planning Inspector why we have refused it now.”

Despite these warnings, the committee rejected the plan by six members to five.

A spokesperson for Bewl Water, which is run by Elite Leisure Collection, said the company was now appealing. He added that leader of Wealden District Council, Cllr Bob Standley, and chair of the planning committee, Cllr Johanna Howell, had ‘deliberately misled’ the committee and that the council leader had already given Bewl’s plans the greenlight.

He told the Times: “I believe the likes of Bob Standley and Joanna Howell have deliberately misled the committee, most of whom are not familiar with Bewl Water, by stating the building has been purposely left derelict and redevelopment of the lodge into accommodation will impact fishing. This is not the case”

“In a meeting on September 10, 2021 where we presented the plans to Wealden MP Nus Ghani and Cllr Bob Standley, Cllr Standley stated in the meeting he would support the conversion of the lodge into accommodation.

“The current building can’t be used as it is not safe and if it is not converted it will just fall down and remain an eyesore.

“There was no ecological reason to reject the planning application. The councillors on the planning committee just do not want any sustainable development on Bewl Water.

“What they do not understand is that managing something like Bewl has a large cost attached to ensure it is kept maintained so everybody is able to use it.

“The revenue from the holiday lets would be used to maintain Bewl. An appeal is now going in and we are 100 per cent certain we will win as we have abided by all the planning regulations.

“The legal fees, cost of the appeal as well as our costs will end up being paid by Business Rate and Council Tax payers in Wealden. It could run into tens of thousands of pounds all because of an orchestrated effort to prevent any development at Bewl water.”

The local Parish Council commented that Bewl Water had not been transparent with plans and had not communicated with them.

This was countered with Bewl Water’s planning consultants, Kember Loudon Williams, proving they had in fact asked the Parish Council on at least four occasions if they could present plans to them.

Initially the Parish Council refused to meet as they said they were taking ‘legal advice’ as to whether they could meet. They have now accepted that Bewl Water did communicate correctly and are meeting at attraction later this week. 

The chairman of Wealden District Council, Cllr Johanna Howell [Frant & Wadhurst], defended the committee’s decision.  She told the Times: “Planning can be very, very subjective and we often go against what the officers say. “We have a very good record of winning appeals, but we represent the community in our wards and some taxpayers may feel the cost of an appeal is worth it.”

However, Julian Black at Kember Loudon Williams (KLW) that drew up the plans for Bewl Water, said the decision ‘had the feeling of political bias’.

He said: “I do not understand the basis of decision, in planning terms. The planning application complies fully with the Council’s adopted planning policies and it’s tourism strategy.

“It is an existing building not a new build, so there is a long established presumption in favour of its re-use for economic development / rural diversification purposes.”

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