Misunderstanding could force shop closure at Sidmouth Garden Centre

A POPULAR farm shop could be shut within two years if a solution cannot be found to regularise a planning condition.

A POPULAR farm shop could be shut within two years if a solution cannot be found to regularise a planning condition.

Sidmouth Garden Centre owner Ian Barlow believed written advice given to him by a district council officer gave him the go-ahead to lease part of a £250,000 extension to Riverford Farm Shop

Now he is faced with appeal costs and possible legal action after being told he has to comply with a planning condition of the permission given.

Mr Barlow says he is "stunned" by the decision, made at Tuesday's meeting of East Devon District Council's development control committee who voted to serve him an enforcement notice to stop the use of the farm shop.

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He has been given two years to comply, which councillors understood coincided with an option to terminate the lease.

However, said Mr Barlow afterwards, that only applies to Riverford, not him, as he has a seven year lease with them.

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He tried to indicate this during the meeting, but was silenced by chief executive Mark Williams.

"I never thought it would come to this. It has come as a bit of a shock. The council gave us planning permission. We have always sold food here, I am stunned," said Mr Barlow.

Still paying off £50,000 from an earlier planning appeal relating to car parking, he said he had checked with council officers if his permission allowed him to go ahead with his plans to lease part to Riverford.

In a series of e-mails, he received one from Nigel Harrison, EDDC's economic development manager, last October, stating: "From my discussion with colleagues, a split 15% Riverford 85% Sidmouth Garden Centre would not require planning approval. I hope the discussions with them go well and look forward to hearing from you as they progress."

"How can you have a misunderstanding when the officer you are talking to is the one who passed planning three days before? It makes an absolute nonsense.

"No-one will take responsibility for anything," said Mr Barlow, who only knew of Tuesday's meeting after being told by the Sidmouth Herald.

"I have always thought I was being victimised by the council. It just seems like that when I tried to do everything by the book this time. I called them, spoke to them and got it in writing. I carried on and didn't try to hide anything."

E-mails were copied to Stephen Belli, EDDC's development control manager, and a planning officer.

During the meeting, Mr Belli said the planning condition was imposed to ensure the site, in the AONB, was not used for other retail purposes than those ancillary to a garden centre.

He agreed discussions with a senior planning officer at the time, and an exchange of e-mails, indicated the size of floor space would be ancillary use and not in need of planning permission.

"And it appears Mr Barlow felt sufficiently comfortable to go ahead," he added.

Kate Little, head of planning and countryside services, added: "We have acknowledged the fault made in advice. We accept that was wrong.

"Advice should always be in writing, formally, with the planning authority if you want to proceed.

"There was a mistake made, it doesn't mean it should be allowed on a sympathy basis."

Councillor Ann Liverton said while Mr Belli had presented a proper case for the enforcement order, "Members of the public don't understand this. They think if they call the council and get advice that what they are given is right.

"This went ahead in all good faith after being told it didn't need planning permission."

She said businesses were "struggling to get through the next two years" because of the economic recession.

"This enterprise ticks all the boxes."

Mrs Liverton felt Riverford would be well established after two years and to then close it down would meet with a "lot of local protest."

Councillor Graham Troman said: "There was a mistake. I think we have to address that. The fair way would be to see the lease out on that business and then reapply for any other use."

Councillors were concerned about setting a precedent for A1 retail use in the AONB, which was against council policy, with Councillor Tony Reed reiterating fears this variation could allow the site, if sold, to be used for a supermarket.

Sidmouth Town Council was against enforcement action "as it was considered that the Riverford Farm Shop is complimentary to the garden centre."

Ward Councillor Stuart Hughes also backed the farm shop and asked for no action to be taken.

Councillor Chris Gibbings, head of town council planning, observed the meeting and said: "The town council is totally behind the Barlows. Personally I look forward to an application to regularise the matter.

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