Welcome to the virtual HQ of the 'Save The Cherry' Campaign
Our purpose is show support for a wonderful little pub and to broadcast a plea for assistance in keeping it as such.
On 6th December 2010, without warning, the present owners of The Cherry Tree Inn in Tintern, Monmouthshire walked out of their home and business and locked the doors behind them.
Those doors have remained firmly closed every since and a 'change of use from public house' application recently submitted to the local council now threatens the prospect of them ever reopening.
The Cherry has been serving ales and ciders to the good folk of the beautiful Angiddy Valley for the last four centuries. We - the locals - have set up this website to highlight the plight of our precious local and to provide a conduit through which to fight this aggressive assault on our community.
The anniversary has arrived of the decision by Monmouthshire County Council (MCC) to grant 'change of use' at the Cherry Tree and, although the Friends of the Cherry (FoTH) may have maintained a low public profile over the intervening months, we have in fact been extremely busy behind the scenes examining and challenging many aspects of the legitimacy of the decision. We should state upfront that we have been unsuccessful in our goal of revocation of the planning - MCC's Head of Planning has refused to accept that it was 'grossly wrong' to grant it and the WAG Ombudsman has fallen into line behind him. We feel however that the details of the battle should be made public so that those who have taken an interest in the fate of The Cherry can make up their own minds.
Deviation from Policy
The Head of Planning at MCC refuses to accept that MCC's planning policy requires viability and 'realistic marketing' be assessed in determining community facility change-of-use applications. It is his contention that the only necessary criterion is that there should be 'alternative provision'. There has been much debate about policy item CF2 which mentions all three criteria but which is ambiguously worded. The ambiguity is noted in an internal report which was commissioned by MCC to investigate our complaint:
'The policy can be interpreted in a number of ways'
The complaint investigation report continues:
'The interpretation that all three criteria should be met was confirmed by the Head of Legal Services'
However it appears that, after the intervention of the Head of Planning, the Head of Legal Services then undertook an 'about face' and we are now told (by the Head of Planning) that the Head of Legal Services now agrees with the Head of Planning on this matter. We'll leave you to draw your own conclusions as to the form this 'intervention' took. The debate, however, is quite unnecessary as the UDP (The definitive statement of planning policy) states unambiguously on the same page as CF2 (paragraph 14.3.4):
'With respect to commercially-operated community facilities, applicants will need to demonstrate that the existing facility is not, and could not reasonably be expected to become, financially viable. Applicants will also be required to show that the facility has been actively marketed at a price that is based on an appropriate market value for its existing commercial use'
There are no 'ifs' or 'buts' here, just an unambiguous statement of planning conditionality. The Head of Planning however has chosen to ignore this UDP policy item and insist on his own interpretation of policy; presumably because he recognises that to accept deviation from policy without justification would render the decision grossly wrong and thus revocation inevitable. Hilariously, before we pointed out the existence of the above paragraph, the Head of Planning told us that 'Statutory adopted development plan policies should not need interpretation or embellishment'. Now it is our view that no interpretation or embellishment is required in concluding from paragraph 14.3.4 that viability and marketing are necessary considerations in change-of-use applications. Remarkably, nobody from MCC has provided any comment on why this paragraph has, and continues, to be ignored.
OK, you might ask, planning policy is one thing but how can you prove deviation from this stated policy? Well...
'Applicants will also be required to show that the facility has been actively marketed at a price that is based on an appropriate market value for its existing commercial use'
- The Applicants themselves have admitted (in their application believe it or not!) that: '£400,000 is indeed too much for this pub'
- We now know (from the Land Registry) that the Fountain Inn, which was used as a comparative local pub in FoTC's representation to the planning department, sold last summer for just £150,000.
- There are many other grounds on which to doubt appropriate marketing which are listed both in FoTC's representation in addition to a further point which was uncovered by MCC during their internal investigation which also casts doubt on the integrity of the applicants (See below).
'applicants will need to demonstrate that the existing facility is not, and could not reasonably be expected to become, financially viable'.
- Multiple Extended holidays to Australia? - the pub can't have been that financially unviable!
- Why did the applicants stop making use of the four letting rooms?
- It is no secret that the applicants have not exactly made themselves popular in the village yet hundreds within the community made it known that they wanted the pub to stay as such. Where is the demonstration that a change of ownership would not have boosted takings back up to where they were just a few years ago.
- The 'questionable' tax return - see below for the ugly details!
Apparently Deliberate Attempts to Mislead the Planning Department
The application is littered with exaggerations, distortions of the truth and ill-tempered digs at specific members of the community but, by and large, we are prepared to accept that 'spin' will inevitably feature in the submission of such an unpopular and contentious application.
There are however two crucial items in the application which we feel extend beyond the reaches of subjective and impassioned case-pleading and into the realms of what appears to be a desire to deliberately mislead to advance, dishonestly, the applicant's chances of success.
The first of these was uncovered by the MCC complaint investigation:
'The applicants' supporting information claims continuous marketing of the public house. The pub was initially advertised with Sidney Phillips, a national chain specialising in pub, hotel and restaurant sales. A conversation with Mr John Williams of agents Sidney Phillips confirmed that the Cherry Tree was withdrawn from sale in November 2007, some three and a half years prior to the application'
The second is altogether more sinister and, in our view, invalidates the decision entirely.
The planning officer's report stated that:
'The supporting statement says that despite the efforts of the owners, the viability of the pub has diminished and the owners' partnership tax return for the year 2008/09 was submitted in support of this claim, outlining their losses within this period'
The planning committee meeting minutes indicate that:
'some Members considered that, the Cherry Tree Inn, as a public house, had failed as a commercial enterprise'.
The above paragraphs provide a clear paper trail leading from the tax return submission to the decision. That's all very well but those living in the village in may be able to cast their minds back to the events of 2008/2009. The following links should jog a few memories:
- Village Vendetta escalates in the abbey's shadow', Western Mail, July 26th 2008.
- Unique pub shut after sign row', BBC News, August 7th 2008.
- Climber 'stable' after Tintern rescue', South Wales Argus, March 17th 2009.
- 'Tintern pub bucks gloomy trend to reopen', South Wales Argus, August 26th 2009
That's right - from March 2008 to August 2009 the applicants weren't running The Cherry: they were running The Anchor! An honest mistake? - well maybe, but it does seem strange that, for an application submitted in the spring of 2011, it was not thought more appropriate to include the most recent full trading year tax return i.e. 2009/2010. Sounds like tax return cherry-picking to us.
In relation to these points the MCC investigation report goes on to state that:
'In pursuing revocation the courts will be looking for: evidence that has come to light since the original planning decision... . The MCC case should make reference to the issue of the tax return for the year in which the pub was closed and information from Sidney Phillips confirming that they ceased marketing the Cherry Tree in November 2007'
However, just to recap, The Head of Planning has opted to dismiss this report and ignore all the other issues we have highlighted regarding the validity of the planning. Does that mean that the green light has now tacitly been given to 'creative' planning applications? What a strange precedent for MCC!
The role of the Planning Committee
When seeking to understand the planning committee's decision to defy expectations and allow change-of-use at The Cherry, it is tempting to speculate on murky dealings involving Tintern Community Councillor Pocock (the applicant) and those MCC councillors who sit on the planning committee. FoTC do not subscribe to conspiracy theories such as these (although there have been many circulating) preferring, where possible, to concentrate on referenced facts. We speculate however that the committee, whilst well-meaning, have arrived at their 'rogue' decision via a combination of:
point a) has been considered above. Points b) & c) are considered below.
The Planning Officer's Report was unambiguous in its recommendation that the planning be refused yet according to the MCC complaint investigation report:
'MCC is found to be in breach of paragraph 12.3 and 2.1 of the Planning Code of Practice as members have made a decision contrary to officer advice without clearly articulating additional evidence to justify that decision'
It then goes on the issue to recommendation:
'Monmouthshire County Council should consider seeking legal advice on the likelihood of obtaining permission from Welsh Government to revoke the planning permission under section 97 of Town and Country Planning Act'
Now of course we know that the Head of Planning chose to ignore the report and its recommendations but the above is just one example of planning committee incompetence. The report also states that:
'In discussions, the chair of the planning committee was unable to identify explicitly any additional evidence that members had brought to bear in reaching their decision'
In other words, the committee has been unable, even retrospectively, to think up anything plausible to satisfy this requirement. What then did they base their decision on?
All we know on the matter are contained within the following two references:
The minutes of the meeting on 6th September:
'In considering the details of the application some Members considered that, the Cherry Tree Inn, as a public house, had failed as a commercial enterprise and it would be unlikely to prosper as a public house in future due to local competition in Tintern and the lack of car parking facilities on site However other members agreed with the officer's recommendation that the application should be refused and the property should remain as a public house'
An excerpt from the South Wales Argus (11th August 2011):
'Cllr. Dovey sympathised with the couple, who have struggled to keep the business going financially since buying it in 2000 and have failed to find a buyer but said that people's habits are changing "You can buy cheaper alcohol from supermarkets or go to the pubs and buy it cheaper. Sadly this pub has had its day. The final nail in the coffin was when the Post Office axed the sub office (which the couple ran from the premises)" he added.
If we are to hold our council representatives to account for their actions then scrutiny of these scant public proclamations provides the only prospect of understanding the influences and motivations which shaped the Committee's rather strange decision. Deep breath .. here goes (please bear with us!)
- What prompted 'some members' to consider the Cherry to have failed as a commercial enterprise? Was it the tax return (shown to be questionable), was it the site visit to the dishevelled premises (subjective opinions which may belie the pub's nationally celebrated status) or was it the testimony of the applicants (now surely to be treated with caution).
- Parking/competition: According to this reference 16 people were employed at the Cherry just a few years ago and thus indicating that this small pub was at that time thriving - despite the competition and parking problems proposed by the Planning Committee. The parking has since improved considerably with the opening of the old wireworks carpark some 200m from the pub. The pub has always had a quirky reputation and the public representations to MCC opposing change-of-use are littered with expressions of how the pub was itself a destination - many of whom were walkers or cyclists unconcerned by the pub not having its own private car park.
- Councillor Dovey's responsibility as a member of the planning committee is purely to assess applications against the UDP. Sympathy should play no part in his decision making.
- Councillor Dovey's assertion that cheaper alcohol is available from supermarkets is an issue which affects all pubs. The applicants have since moved to another pub a short distance away which is presumably similarly affected by such economics. Will he now be supportive of change-of-use at The Fountain should the applicants get bored of running that pub too?
- 'Sadly this pub has had its day' - as dismissive, ill-informed and arrogant statements go, this one takes the biscuit! How does Councillor Dovey square this with the views of many hundreds of people, both local to Tintern and from across the entire country, who made it known that The Cherry was important to them and that they felt this centuries-old establishment had plenty more days ahead of it! It may be that the current owners, who opened on an ad hoc basis and succeeded in alienating themselves from many in the village, felt that the pub was struggling to sustain their extended holidays to Australia each winter but to extrapolate this to the future viability of the pub itself is breathtaking in its audacity.
- 'The final nail in the coffin was when the Post Office axed the sub office' - as discussed above, it is claimed that The Cherry employed 16 staff at the time of the Post Office closure. Whilst this would undoubtedly have had an effect on business to call it 'the final nail in the coffin' is simply absurd and demonstrates gross ignorance.
So that's it then. No evidence of having considered whether the pub had been marketed realistically, no 'additional evidence', no weight given to the majority view that the pub should remain a pub. All that remains is ill-informed subjectivity that quickly evaporates in a puff of hot air when subjected to rational scrutiny.
Further insight into the minds of the Planning Committee was provided to us by Ann Webb - the ward councillor for Tintern. She let slip that many of the members made their decision on the site visit on 2nd August 2011. This constitutes yet another breach of The Code of Conduct (Section 11.4):
'Members of the Planning Committee shall not discuss the application, other than to clarify issues of fact, and shall not make a decision while on site.'
What concerns us here is not the technical breach of the code but the implications of decisions being made not on objective planning grounds but on subjective impressions gained on the members' outing to The Angiddy Valley. At the time of the visit, The Cherry had been closed for nearly 8 months and we think it fair to say that its abandonment had taken its toll in terms of its presentation to an outside world unfamiliar with its recent history as a vibrant and important establishment at the spiritual heart of The Lower Angiddy Valley. We suspect that certain members may have been influenced by the sorry state in which they would have encountered this fiercely unconventional pub and that they readily talked themselves into 'writing it off' as unviable.
The Planning Committee is comprised of elected representatives but from where we're standing its difficult to see where the democratic accountability comes from. We told the committee in our hundreds that we were opposed to change-of-use at The Cherry but this was ignored. The Ward Councillor for Tintern (Ann Webb) told us that she did not vote on the future of the Cherry because she found it 'too emotional'. We assume that this is a tacit admission of the awkwardness she would naturally have felt in taking an adversarial stance against the applicant - who sits with her on Tintern Community Council. Frankly, we would have preferred our elected representative to have, well, represented the clearly articulated views of the people of the Angiddy Valley.
One final point before we remove the spotlight from the beleaguered Planning Committee. The Planning Officer's report is unequivocal in stating that:
'The proposed development does not meet the requirements of Monmouthshire Unitary Development Plan Policy CF2'
yet we know from MCC's Complaint Investigation Report that:
'Discussions with the Chair of The Planning Committee Indicate that she does not have an unequivocal view on how policy CF2 should be read'.
This suggests a lack of familiarity within the Planning Committee of both the contents of the Planning Officer's report and relevant planning law. This is in addition to apparent ignorance of the Code of Conduct - a fact which has been exposed by numerous examples of the code having been breached. We accept that the committee is comprised of 'lay-persons' with respect to planning law, that they are 'only human' and that in this case they were probably acting with the best of intentions. However we believe that the council-tax-paying electorate within Monmouthshire have a right to expect that, when deliberating applications which will profoundly effect communities within the county, members would arm themselves to the teeth with all the objective facts, requirements, constraints and obligations necessary for them to make objective and justifiable decisions. This does not appear to have happened here and, although we have been unable to prevent members from surrendering our beloved pub to development, we hope that by kicking up a bit of a fuss on this matter we can put pressure on them to act more responsibly next time short-term concerns threatens one of our treasured historic pubs.
The Role of The Head of Planning
In correspondence with us, The Head of Planning has gone to extraordinary lengths to defend the planning committee and some of his tortuous, hypothetical, retro-fitted arguments are a truly a wonder to behold.
The email chain passing between FoTC and the Head of Planning can be made available on request but we feel a reasonable précis of his position is as follows:
His interpretation of policy is that (despite the unambiguous wording of UDP paragraph 14.3.4 given above) the only requirement for approval is that 'the local community would continue to be served by facilities to which there is easy and convenient access by means other than the private car'. Now, nothing in the minutes indicates that this point was discussed at the meeting and it certainly does not feature in the committee's 'justification'. However, the Head of Planning speculates that if the committee had considered this point then they probably would have concluded that alternative provision was adequate and would then have clearly stated this as sufficient grounds for planning approval. This convoluted hypothesis is used to retrospectively justify the decision (we're not making this up!).
The Head of Planning fails to speculate on whether or not the partly-pavemented road leading from The Angiddy to Tintern would have been deemed by members to provide 'convenient access by means other than the private car' but that doesn't seem to present any difficulties to his retro-fitted justification narrative.
The Head of Planning goes on to proclaim that: '..I consider the Angiddy community to be too small to merit separate and duplicatory provision of community facilites from what is provided in Tintern a short distance away '. Nowhere in the UDP have we been able to find any reference to community size being a valid criterion in assessing such planning applications and we are forced to conclude therefore that this is little more than spontaneously concocted pseudo-policy. Given that hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the area every year and that there is plenty of evidence to show that the famous Cherry Tree was a powerful draw in its own right, it is frankly absurd to claim that the community is too small to deserve its own pub. The only objective way to assess the pub's existential 'merit' would be via its business accounts - for periods when the pub was trading rather than not trading that is! Unfortunately this presents the Head of Planning with a logical inconsistency as he does not believe viability to be of relevance - oops!
The head of Planning should be congratulated in seeing off our challenges to him and securing the support of the WAG Ombudsman. He has succeeded in passing on the blame for the unjustified decision from the Planning Committee to his Planning Officer, ignoring inconvenient paragraphs within the UDP while making up new policy which better fits his adopted position and single-mindedly supporting the members' decision while rewriting the reasons originally given for that decision. Perhaps we can now do away with the expense of professional planners, planning policy, public consultation and the expectation of justified decision making by our elected representatives? - Given that all of these have been deemed expendable in this case, maybe we should simply let The Head of Planning shape our future environment according to his personal assessment of what he 'considers' to be important.
Winners and Losers
So who comes out on top after this sorry debacle?
Few would argue that those most adversely affected by the decision are the residents of the Angiddy Valley who have lost the heart of their community. Many of us are still bemused by what has happened and we feel that a quirky little corner of colour and vibrancy has permanently been snatched from us rudely and unnecessarily.
The Head of Planning may have won the day but we speculate that his professional reputation may well suffer as a consequence. Surely as a senior public servant his priority should lie with delivering accountable and reasoned services to the people for whom he works? We would have hoped that common sense and a willingness to act positively for our community would have outweighed his determined and unwavering support for a negative, unpopular, ill-informed and unjustified decision. Revocation and reconsideration of the planning may have presented him with an uncomfortable prospect - but it would also have been the right thing to do.
The Planning Committee has enjoyed the full support of the Head of Planning and may therefore feel vindicated. It should however be noted that we expect our Councillors to work for the greater good of our communities and to follow the rules rather than being blinded by subjective impressions and sympathies. If they are not prepared to support our communities then why should those communities support them come election time?
The Planning Officer for this case has been made something of a scapegoat for the failings of the Planning Committee. We believe her advice to be entirely consistent with the UDP and think it unacceptable that her boss has suggested that her professional judgment was flawed.
On the face of it, it may appear that the applicants have scored the top prize in all this - they have successfully managed to hoodwink the Planning Committee into sympathising with them and appear to have now achieved their goal of escaping to a new life a mile and a half up the road by cashing in on a treasured and historic Angiddy community facility. Of course to realise this dream there is still the matter of selling The Cherry on for development - and this may well prove to be the flaw in their schemes. The brutal reality is that the building is worth nothing like the £380,000 they are asking for it - this is supported by both back of a fag-packet calculations and the fact that a year on from being awarded the change of use it remains unsold. One of the proposed units is dominated by a huge windowless beer cellar, has a tiny garden and receives virtually no natural light - what might such a place sell for in the current economic climate? - £100,000? Add to this the fact that the building would need to be rewired (its 3-phase system is only permissible in commercial buildings), the considerable renovation costs and the fact that decay in an abandoned building can be spectacularly rapid - the economic realities of the scheme are quickly exposed.
Another issue is the condition of planning which states:
'No occupation of the proposed dwellings shall take place until car parking provision has been provided for each dwelling in accordance with the approved plan and that area shall not thereafter be used for any purpose other than the parking of vehicles'
A strict reading of the Monmouthshire UDP document '2009 Parking Guidelines' indicates that in order to fulfill this requirement a further four off-road parking places would need to be found for the two units - its not clear to us how this could be achieved. All things considered, the planning permission may not quite live up to the promise of a windfall that perhaps the applicants had hoped for.
The conclusion therefore is that there are no winners. A once vibrant community facility will continue to stand empty and rotting, confidence and respect for a local government body and its elected representatives has been diminished, tacit approval has been given to planning application dishonesty. All in all, 9th August 2011 was a bad day for many in Monmouthshire.
We would urge those concerned about the future of community pubs to get behind CAMRA's excellent Save Your Pint Campaign.
It seems that we are not the only ones extremely unhappy with the 'service' provided by MCC's Planning Department: Crap Developments