Public inquiry into new travellers’ site begins

A Somerset developer has clashed with the local authority over plans for a new travellers’ site off the busy A37. Shaun Essex applied for permission in June 2020 to build nine travellers’ pitches on a small parcel of land opposite Old Gore Wood in the village of Emborough, a few miles south-west of Midsomer Norton. Mendip District Council refused permission for the plans in November 2020, prompting Mr Essex to lodge an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate.

The two sides exchanged verbal blows at the council’s Shepton Mallet headquarters on Tuesday morning (June 28) as a planning inquiry to settle the matter got underway. The site lies at the corner of the A37 and Old Gore Lane, a short distance from the woods and within touching distance of the Mendip Hills area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). Each pitch within the site would have enough room for a static caravan, a touring caravan and a day room, with a children’s play area being provided clear to the northern boundary.

A previous application for the same site, comprising two travellers’ pitches, was granted on appeal in January 2016 – but while the access from Old Gore Lane has been improved, the pitches have not yet been installed. The council’s planning officers refused the plans for nine pitches on two grounds – that the development would have an “urbanising effect” on the local area, and there was a lack of “adequate supporting information” about energy-saving measures which would be implemented for residents. Planning officer Carlton Langford reiterated these arguments at the planning inquiry, telling inspector Martin Allen that the site was inappropriate while acknowledging a lack of traveller provision in the district.

He said: “We recognise there is a shortfall of [traveller] sites – end of story. “We consider this would create significant visual harm, undermining the rural nature of Old Gore Wood in particular and the surrounding area in general.” “The significant visual harm identified would not be outweighed by the benefits of the proposal.

“Our overriding argument in this case is that there remains, as there always has been, an impact on the character of the area – and that is going to be exacerbated by seven additional pitches. “An additional nine pitches, by reason of its scale, would have a harmful impact on the neighbouring community.” Dr Angus Murdoch, Mr Essex’s agent, said the coronavirus pandemic had prevented work on the two pitches within the site from moving forward – and confirmed these would be delivered even if the current appeal was lost.

He said: “We’ve had two years with the pandemic where we were unable to do the work on the site which we wanted to do. “We have begun the development [of a two-pitch site] – we have a certificate of compliance. If permission for a nine-pitch site is refused, a two-pitch site will still be delivered.”

Dr Murdoch added that the impact on the landscape and character of the local area would be  “negligible”, elaborating: “The degree of visual enclosure of the site divorces it from the wider landscape character. “It has extremely limited individual visibility. The A37 is a fast-moving, 50mph truck road, and oblique views along Old Gore Road would not be available.

“There is no requirement in local or national planning policy for travellers’ sites to be hidden. On the contrary, they should be part and parcel of the community.” Dr Murdoch was also deeply critical of the council’s record on travellers, alleging they”hadn’t complied with planning policy” for providing pitches since 1994 and potentially discriminating against the families seeking to live within the site.

He said: “All their sites have been made by windfall provision. I hope this is the last appeal we have to do like this, but I remain to be convinced. “The people who would use this site are decent, gypsy families.

They live in Mendip, and to say there are too many of them is unhelpful. I don’t understand that argument. “Introducing seven more pitches to the site falls well short of ‘dominating’ the area.

I haven’t seen any argument as to why seven new families is too many.” Mr Langford responded that the council’s concerns were less with the number of families than the scale of the facilities which would be provided within such a small site. He said: “The scale of the site dominates the local population in the immediate area.”

Mr Allen will conduct a formal site visit following the inquiry’s conclusion, with his ruling expected to be published on the Planning Inspectorate’s website by the end of the summer.