You will probably remember the controversial unauthorised two-storey garage, tennis court and skateboard bowl, built without planning permission at Gerston Point in the heart of the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and within the designated Heritage Coast. This is a case which has attracted local community opposition, some support, some anger and even national interest. In part, this is because it involves a serious planning violation but also because the landowner in question is the founder of the well known White Stuff chain. Who owns the land is not our concern but the issues raised by this case certainly are. Whilst our District Council is still considering the owener’s late in the day mitigation planting proposals, we have been surprised to find that the illegal build is attracting worldwide interest.
One of our members, who had hoped for a quiet retirement from the Society’s volunteer planning team, recently wrote a few comments on a SHS Facebook post about Gerston Point. Outlining his personal concerns, he wrote about one of the retrospective planning application documents. The document – an ecological appraisal – had been submitted by an experienced independent local ecologist commissioned by the landowner. The appraisal stated that there was evidence of bat droppings, and that bats might be roosting in the roof space of the garage shed which the Council had previously ordered to be demolished.
Having outlined his concerns about the bat report, our ex-colleague was surprised to be, almost immediately, cross-examined by another Facebook contributor – who was very well informed, both about the Gerston affair, and the ecologist’s appraisal. Nothing unusual in that you might think. A robust exchange of views online, surely that is par for the course with social media. But the new contributor was from outside the South Hams. Again, so what? The Gerston story has already made it way over the borders into most of the national papers, and on to BBC news desks. No, the contributor was from New Zealand.
In response to the challenge, our ex-volunteer explained his concerns about the sudden appearance of bats in the complicated mix of planning issues involved in the Gerston affair, and pressed the ‘post’ button. At this point others supporting the applicant got engaged. A planning consultant suggested he should explain himself and his criticisms directly to the author of the Ecological Appraisal in question – a copy of our member’s open letter is available here. The views expressed in the letter are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position the SHS has taken in this controversial case. The Society’s views are contained in our Letter of Representation to the South Hams District Council is available via this link, and on the planning file.
Meanwhile the Council’s decision on whether to approve or refuse the (second) retrospective planning application for this highly sensitive site is eagerly awaited. Council Leader, Councillor Judy Pearce, said recently – “It’s a question of whether the offer of 1,000 trees is enough to offset the damage being done by what really is a big shed, almost a warehouse, in the back garden where they must have known it wouldn’t be allowed.” There is an old saying in countryside protection circles – if you can’t control local development planning, then all you have left are trees and bats! It seems that the unlawful development at Gerston is about to stress test that point. If the Council decides to grant approval, after turning down the first retrospective application, what a green light that will give to those in the South Hams who are prepared to ignore the law.
We await the Council’s ruling in both hope and trepidation.