Council officers wrongly granted planning permission three times for cattle-rearing buildings in a village, causing years of noise and smell nuisance to residents.
The Ombudsman said that the residents lost the peaceful enjoyment of their homes because of incompetence and neglect. She said that Durham County Council should commission an independent assessment to help it consider whether to remove or amend the planning permissions for all three buildings.
Officers of Durham’s predecessor council, Teesdale District Council, granted planning permission for two agricultural buildings in a rural hamlet. The officers had no authority to give the permissions and did not impose any conditions to protect the amenity of nearby homes. The buildings were used to house up to 120 veal calves.
Local residents, who live between 60 and 100 metres from the site, complained repeatedly for years about the smell and noise from the animals and associated activities, but the Council failed to respond or to evaluate the evidence of nuisance. The Ombudsman found clear and incontrovertible evidence that the Council did not keep adequate records of contacts from residents – the residents recorded more than 140 contacts, the Council only five.
The residents complained formally in March 2010 to Durham County Council. A senior manager became involved but he did not investigate the lack of response to their previous complaints. He arranged noise monitoring, but by this time the number of cattle housed in the buildings had been reduced dramatically and the site owner had begun to mix feed behind the buildings, reducing the noise reaching the residents’ homes. The monitoring showed a “borderline possible nuisance” and the Environmental Health Service decided not to take any further action.
The residents continued to press the case that the noise and other nuisance from the 15 or so cattle on the site when the monitoring was taking place was very different from what they had experienced when up to 170 cattle were being housed. The senior manager and the Head of Planning knew of these concerns directly from the residents and from their local councillors. One councillor said that these officers “seemed to dismiss the evidence out of hand”.
In July 2010 Durham Council’s Area Planning Committee approved a planning application for a third building, for some 240 cattle, on the basis of a “seriously and inexcusably deficient” officers’ report. Among many faults, it did not mention the number of cattle that could be housed in the existing buildings or in the new building, the impact on neighbouring homes, or the history of complaints about the site.
The Ombudsman found that Teesdale District Council officers were wrong to have granted the first two planning applications and that its Environmental Health Service had failed to record and respond to the residents’ complaints about the impact on them.
She found that Durham County Council failed to properly investigate residents’ concerns that their repeated complaints had not been dealt with properly, and that it was wrong to grant planning permission for the third building.
The Ombudsman found maladministration causing injustice and recommended the Council to:
- commission an independent assessment of the impact of the unrestricted use of the two existing buildings, the likely impact of the third building, and what measures if any could be taken to reduce that impact
- consider, in light of that independent assessment ,whether to remove or amend the planning permissions for all three buildings, and
- pay each household the council tax due on their properties from January 2006 to March 2010, 50 per cent of the tax due from March 2010 to when it reaches a decision based on the independent assessment, and £2,120 in recognition of the noise nuisance, about which they complained in vain, and their time and trouble in making those complaints.
She also asked the Council to investigate two instances of serious wrongdoing discovered during her investigation – letters being removed from planning files and an officer claiming to have sent a letter to the residents during 2009 when it was only created in 2011 during her investigation.
On 18 July 2016 we issued a further report about this complaint. This report was published, in part, to ensure the public record is set straight to reflect events since the issue of the original report. The faults identified in the 2012 report have been revisited and amended accordingly. Whilst some of the issues identified in the original report have been satisfactorily resolved, many of the faults still stand. We are not satisfied in relation to the following outstanding recommendation:
- commission an independent assessment of:
- the impact of the unrestricted use of the two existing agricultural buildings;
- the likely impact of the third building that has planning permission; and
- what measures could be taken to reduce that impact. In light of the independent assessment the council should consider whether to remove or amend the planning permission for all three buildings.
The council should therefore confirm to us within three months of the date of this report how it intends to ensure it regains planning control of the land and reduce the potential for further injustice for all concerned. We will consider the actions proposed and confirm if these sufficiently remedy the injustice before we will be in a position to declare ourselves satisfied and formally close the case.