On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week (3rd and 4th July 2018), the appeal hearing for our two planning applications occurred.
The two plans being appealed were as follows:
- 17/03877 — Erection of new vicarage with access through churchyard. This application was made by the Rochester Diocesan Board of Finance.
- 17/00062 — Replacement of Church Hall by construction of hall with access through churchyard. This application was made by our PCC.
We already have approval for a replacement church hall (17/00063), but this includes access through the car park. We will not be able to obtain permission to use the access through the car park, hence the new plan showing access through the churchyard.
Both plans were refused by Sevenoaks District Council, and so an appeal was lodged with the Secretary of State. The appeal took the form of a "hearing" (as distinct from either a public inquiry or an appeal by written submissions). Because two applications were being appealed, two consecutive dates were set. In practice, the two appeals were conjoined, meaning the issues were investigated together. The Inspector is at liberty to accept or dismiss either or both appeals.
The Inspector assigned to our two appeals by the Secretary of State was Helen Heward. The District Council had a team of 4 or 5 of their staff and contractors present to defend and explain their refusal decisions.
The DBF and PCC had a team led by Dr Robert Wickham, acting as planning consultant. With him was our architect, Roger Molyneux, the Diocesan Secretary, and the heritage and tree experts who had been working with Dr Wickham. The Vicar (Revd James Oakley), the Honourary Church Treasurer (Dr Philip Walker), and Trevor Mallinson (one of our churchwardens) were also present throughout and answered questions on behalf of the church where asked.
Members of the public were welcome to attend the hearing; the Inspector made sure that everybody who wished to speak had the opportunity to do so. The hearing was, for the most part, a very structured discussion, tackling specific aspects of the application in turn, considered against specific sections of national planning frameworks and local planning policies, so members of the public had to make their more general comments when invited by the Inspector.
We were extremely impressed by the thoroughness and expertise of the Inspector. She had researched the applications carefully, and knew (without having to consult notes) details such as the names of nearby properties and the exact details that were being disputed. It was clear that she had full mastery of the complex issues under discussion, able both to summarise and to move discussion onto the precise details that needed exploring. She ensured that, on each issue, both parties had sufficient opportunity to explain their point of view. She asked questions of clarification of both sides until she understood the exact point being made, and would only then more onto the next subject.
The discussion was extremely detailed. For example, if someone had come into the hearing for two hours on Wednesday morning, they would have spent their whole visit hearing a detailed discussion on the exact damage done to certain trees, and how that damage would affect the views from various directions.
The hearing started at 10am on Tuesday, and adjourned for the day at 7pm following a 3-hour site visit. The hearing resumed at the earlier hour of 9am on the Wednesday, finally closing at 6.15pm on Wednesday.
During the course of the hearing, 31 different members of our church family came to observe, showing their support by being there. Some also took the opportunity to speak. A few of those stayed for most or all of the hearing, while others came for between one and three hours at a time.
Next Steps and Outcome
At the end of the hearing, there were a few documents that the Inspector asked the two parties to send in within a fortnight. We've been told that appeal hearings typically take about 6 weeks for a decision, although no statements were made as to how long we should expect in our particular case.
Many thanks to all who have prayed, written in support, or attended all or part of the hearing. We will update everyone once we have news of the decisions.