Owl has been pondering the potential for conflicts of interest between some of Clinton Devon Estates’ (CDEs’) more environmentally sensitive development plans and the activities of its Estates Director, John Varley.
On the CDE website, at the time of going to press, Estates’ Director, John Varley is described as follows:
“John’s current non-executive positions include Board Member of the Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England (NE).”
Clearly he is a very influential man.
Owl remembers him being appointed to the Environment Agency Board in 2012 (£21,002 per annum). [This coincided with CDE’s their first planning to extend their cow sheds in the Otter flood plain at the bottom of Colaton Raleigh – something we will return to]. Owl finds John is still on EA’s Board.
But he seems to be a bit confused about his role with Natural England. Owl doesn’t see his name listed as a current Natural England Board member. So Owl has had to call in the Ferrets.
They report that John Varley, whilst on the Environment Agency Board, was also welcomed onto board of Natural England on 29 April 2015 (remuneration £10K-£15K). They also have discovered that he was reported as being “sad to depart before the end of his term” at the meeting of 22 March 2017.
They also note that he has popped up again as chair of the review which will consider all aspects of Network Rail’s approach to vegetation management 12 July 2018.
There is no suggestion whatsoever that John Varley has ever failed to declare an interest. Indeed, the Ferrets find that, quite properly, he had to leave the room during discussion of the agenda item on the reintroduction of beavers on the River Otter at the Natural England Board in September 2015.
What worries Owl is the conflicts, real or imagined, this might pose to the local staff of the Environment Agency and Natural England as they comment on CDE planning applications “without fear or favour”. Owl is also concerned about how it looks in the daylight.
In the old fashioned world Owl was brought up in any potential conflict would have been avoided. Those in a position to wield influence would do the “honourable” thing of either resigning or at least ensuring any applications they could be associated with were made in exemplary fashion.
Owl is not convinced that CDE’s recent planning applications could be described in this way. For example, consider the controversial 2012 applications to extend the cow sheds at Otter Farm, Church Road, Colaton Raleigh (application 12/0400 superseded by 12/2660).
One aspect of the controversy concerns whether or not either of these applications should have had a flood risk assessment. The fact is that Otter Farm is in flood zone 3, but it was claimed that the adjacent cow shed site, literally only yards away, would only lie in Zone 1 (1 in a 1,000 years risk). This was confirmed by EA on 6 February 2013:
“We have had a look at this one and feel, due to the nature of the development that a Flood risk Assessment would not be necessary. Of course we would still expect the applicant to demonstrate a commitment to SUDs in the design of their surface management for the site.”
[SUD – Sustainable drainage system]
However, this was queried by many on the basis of local knowledge including the Parish council, which, in February 2013, asked “for a better assessment in view of recent flooding incidents in the area”. The details were spelled out rather more graphically by one resident who expressed concern that “recently slurry was allowed to escape into the river (Otter) and into Railway Cottages”.
EA wrote again later in February: “Regarding the above, we have been advised that the site is over 1ha, if the new access road is included. If this is the case we are happy to review the application if accompanied by a Flood Risk Assessment”.
Eventually a detailed Environmental Management and Waste Management plan was submitted in April along with a Sustainable Drainage System Design of 66 pages. In May the Environment Agency recorded its thanks to: “you and your colleagues for meeting on site with [ ] to consider measures that could reduce flooding risks for the nearby Railway Cottage.”
Owl now flies forward to a more recent, even more controversial, case that of CDE’s application 17/3022 to extend the Blackhill Engineering works on Woodbury Common, submitted in December 2017.
It is clear from NE’s first comments that the Visual and Environmental Impact Assessments accompanying the application were still not up to scratch. NE’s comments 6 February 2018 read: “As it stands, we have significant concerns regarding the potential impacts of these proposals. We will provide more detailed advice once we have reviewed the additional information.”