Regular readers may have read a blog post a few days ago when I wrote about the difficulties of sailing a narrow boat on tidal waters, and I mentioned there could be an exciting solution ahead. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
We had been offered a most wonderful residential freshwater mooring in scenic countryside with views across woodland and meadows. It was a significant distance from work and would have doubled our travel time, but it would have been worth it for tranquillity and the fact we would be on freshwater, and therefore able to untie the ropes and cruise away at weekends without worrying about tides and currents.
The boatyard owner assured us he had planning consent for residential moorings, something tightly governed by local authorities for obvious reasons, especially on freshwater rivers. I was, however, a little dubious. Almost always planners will insist the marina supplies residential moorings with environmentally essential services, such as shower blocks, plumbed-in washing machines and sewage disposal. Obviously the authorities don't want unscrupulous boat owners to pump their sewage and detergents into a freshwater river, resulting in environmental damage. This particular boatyard offered no such facilities.
Before signing the mooring contract, I decided to check with the local council.to ensure it was legal for us to be there. Clearly we have a duty to pay Council Tax and also register to vote, and should we have moved to a mooring without the necessary planning consents, as soon as we did either of the above, the Council would notice and could issue an eviction notice. Not ideal for someone was in the public eye!
I called the local Council and was placed in a queue for their "Customer Advice Line". And waited. Apparently they were "sorry to keep me waiting, but my call was important to them." After 20 minutes the message changed. They were "experiencing an unusually high volume of calls". I was offered an alternative, I was invited to "press 1" to leave a message" and they would, "call me back as soon as a Customer Services Operator was available" and did I know that, "I could pay parking fines, council tax and other fees and charges online at www.xxxxxxxxx.gov.uk"
I declined the offer to leave a message as I wasn't wholly convinced that a council which was unable to answer a phone would have the skills to return a call. So I waited, and waited. After 1 hour and 10 minutes the phone was answered by Shane. I explained what I was calling about. Shane didn't have a clue, nor did he know who might advise me. I suggested the Planning Desk Officer, which he agreed might be right. I asked to be put through. It was now 4.15pm. Shane's exact words were, "I don't think it's worth your while, there are five people in the queue ahead of you for planning and by the time they get round to your call it will be after 5pm and they will have switch the phone off." At least he was honest! I asked what time planning opened, and was told 8.30am.
At 8.20am I called again, this time using the planning department's direct line, which Shane had given me the previous day. Guess what, "my call was important, but I was in a queue and I would be connected to a planning officer as soon as possible." At 9.10am someone picked up the phone. I went through my story and gave her the exact address and postcode of the boatyard. I was placed on hold. I was now listening to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which is ghastly at any time, but at 9.15am is almost unbearable. Fifteen minutes later she returned to inform me that the moorings at (location) did not have residential planning consent. "But I am not calling about the moorings at (x) they are 5 miles upriver and on the opposite bank. I am calling about (x) which are located at the road and postcode I gave you 15 minutes ago". "Oh, sorry, I have looked up the wrong file", she said. "Could you recheck please?" "Sorry, that's not possible. I have already spent 15 minutes researching for you, which is all I am allowed to do on the phone. If you want further searches you will need to contact our Business Unit and tell them what you want and they will inform you how much you will have to pay." The fact that she had incorrectly answered my original question by ignoring the information I had given her, was totally lost on her.
Having now spent nearly 2.5 hours on the phone and spoken to two different people, neither of whom had the faintest idea how to answer my question, I tried a different route. I emailed a cabinet member I knew personally and explained the situation to him, and asked if he could obtain an answer for me. I don't like doing this, but I couldn't see any alternative. I wasn't asking for special favours or for them to change or amends a planning decision - all I wanted was a straightforward answer if the boatyard had residential permission. I was about to move to the district and pay them £1000 pa in Council Tax, I felt I had a right to know if it was legal for me to do so!
To his credit, "Cllr P" asked the relevant question, and within 24 hours received a reply. I am grateful to him for his efforts on my behalf, but here is a summary of what the planning officer sent, which he subsequently forwarded to me. I have redacted any information which identifies him, the local authority or the name of the planning officer. It still makes wonderful reading...
…the moorings granted planning permission under (xxxxxxxx), although probably intended from our point of view as recreational moorings, may potentially have a consent for residential use by default of the conditions not precluding such use (although I would not take a firm view on this without consultation with the Council’s legal team). The riverside moorings had a clearly defined and conditioned temporary consent for 14 recreational moorings and 1 residential mooring, but no longer have planning permission for this, and may or may not be immune from enforcement action as this would require 10 years continuous use which cannot have accrued (unless the permission was not implemented in accordance with the consent which is a whole new can of worms I do not want to go into at this time!). The situation therefore varies depending on whether they could apply for a CLD on the basis that the 1995 consent does not preclude such use, or that the use of the land of the relevant berth has been used for such purposes for a continuous period in excess of 10 years. Alternatively, they could just apply for planning permission. However, whilst in a relatively sustainable location, the site is in the open countryside, and an ALLI, and obviously in a flood zone – given the history of the site, although planning permission might conceivably be granted, it would be by no means a certainty. This is obviously informal advice, and should not be relied upon in the submission of any application. I hope this clarifies the situation.
Well, that really does clarify the situation!
Given the necessary consent may, or may not, have been given, or may or may not be in existence due to continuous use, or may or may not be allowed by accident as constraints were not imposed originally, although this would have been in error, and the Officer doesn't know what might happen without further legal advice, which could, or could not, form the basis of an appeal, or for a future application which might or might not be granted, we have given up on the idea and will be staying put!