When is a turning area for vehicles not a turning area for vehicles? When it’s a “car park extension”.
On 22 March, Hythe Lawn Tennis Club put up photographs of the first day of work on their “new car park extension”.
On the surface, this would seem to be the success story of a local sports club thriving in spite of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, much like their groundworks, dig a little deeper and you discover something unexpected – a tale of historical planning applications, wartime activity, conflicting stories, heritage issues and the ultimate revelation that the club didn’t have planning permission.
It is good to see local sports facilities thriving in such uncertain times. The very fact that Hythe Lawn Tennis Club have extended their car park suggests their facilities are in demand. This isn’t too much of a surprise as they are an outdoor facility and tennis is a good recreational activity for maintaining fitness, keeping in good health and burning calories.
The club opened in 1889 with eight courts and became independent of Hythe Cricket Club in 1946. Two courts were replaced with hard courts in 1970 and floodlit in 1988. A planning application for “construction of two tennis courts, provision of floodlighting and formation of replacement car park area” was approved in December 1995, followed two years later by one for fencing. The next submission was in the summer of 2004 for “provision of hard surfacing to existing grass courts together with the replacement of the existing boundary fence” in order to provide two new hard courts and replace the existing two. However, the Lawn Tennis Association later insisted on full-sized courts, which required a slight extension to the area, another application was duly filed and approved in early 2005. After replacing the floodlights in 2007, the clubhouse was upgraded to a purpose-built pavilion in 2009. Interestingly, an attempt to extend the car park northwards in 2012 under application Y12/0593/SH was refused on two grounds:
The creation of the bund around the proposed car park area would introduce an uncharacteristic feature within the conservation area adjacent to the Scheduled Ancient Monument of the Royal Military Canal to the detriment of the established visual character of the conservation area and also the historic setting and significance of the Scheduled Ancient Monument and the proposals would result in the loss of an undeveloped green space within this area contrary to the aims of Shepway District Council Local Plan policies SD1 and BE4 which seek to ensure that new development preserves or enhances the character or appearance of conservation areas, and the National Planning Policy Framework, which seeks to sustain and enhance the significance and importance of heritage assets.
The proposed car park extension would result in an increased number of vehicles using the adjacent canal path for access and egress to and from the tennis club, causing increased noise and disturbance and a consequent erosion of the established tranquil character of the conservation area, contrary to Shepway District Council Local Plan policies SD1 and BE4 and the National Planning Policy Framework, which seek to ensure that new development preserves or enhances the character or appearance of conservation areas.
Shortly after the refusal, the club requested clarification as to whether planning permission would be needed to put a synthetic clay surface on top of the hard courts. It was determined that “there would be no excavation works required and as such this would not constitute development and not require planning permission”, so application Y12/0892/SH was filed to replace the remaining four grass courts with “all weather macadam tennis courts” at the same time as carrying out the resurfacing of the other four and approved by the end of the year. This was then followed by Y13/0856/SH, a resubmission of the car park application, which the accompanying Officer’s Report explained would “create a more structured car parking area to complement the existing parking area”. The club explained that no increase in traffic would occur as cars already using the site “park haphazardly” and damage the grass, thus tranquility will be unaffected. The report further suggested that the replacement of the previous bund idea with a naturally graded bank and trees and was now acceptable. The application was passed in November 2013 and the car park was extended in 2014, according to the club’s website. However, Condition 5 on the application required full details of a hedge to be planted be submitted and approved by the Council before development starts. This document was submitted on 4 March 2015. Did the club start work before fulfilling the condition, or is this simply a typo on their website? No planning applications have been made by Hythe Lawn Tennis club since.
The document was accompanied by a strongly worded letter to then Head of Planning, Chris Lewis, from the club Chair at the time, Hilary Casey (pictured). She seemed perturbed that no meeting had been arranged to discuss the submission “many weeks” after she requested one and that there have been “communication problems”, pointing out the “tardiness and inefficiency” of the department, a matter on which we can sympathise – sadly, it has not got any better, six years later. It is worth noting that Mrs. Casey’s name was on all applications from 2007 onwards. It would seem apparent that the club was well aware that the club stood in a Conservation Area, adjacent to a Scheduled Monument and that planning permission was required to replace hardstanding and fences – in particular, Mrs. Casey was very familiar with the previous applications. She remains on the Committee as Secretary.
It would seem strange, therefore, that the club would proceed to extend the car park once more, but not seek permission this time, or at least a clarification of whether permission was needed, as they had done for the clay surfacing. We understand that the material used was a permeable surface, and the club were of the impression that this would not require planning permission. Whilst this would be the case for a driveway on a house, rules for both commercial properties and Conservation Areas are often different, so clarification should have been sought from Folkestone and Hythe District Council. Surely a previous application clarifying that “excavation works” constituted development should have been a reasonable clue? We also note that Condition 3 of the 2013 permission required the material used for the extension to be “MOT Type 1” to match the existing car park, so as not to detract from the Conservation Area. We wonder whether the use of a different material would have been grounds for refusal had an application gone in this time.
In the Hythe Town Council meeting of Full Council on 24 September 2020, an e-mail from the club requesting permission to remove a hedge and install a bund to provide a “turning area for vehicles” was discussed. Councillor Martin Whybrow proposed they seek clarification on the proposed size, scope and placing of the bund and where a new hedge would be placed, including map. The motion was unanimously carried. After receiving further details, the permission was granted in the council meeting of 5 November 2020. However, Government advice states that:
“You might need permission from your local council to cut back or remove a hedge if you live in a conservation area”
so, once again, clarification should have been sought from the Local Planning Authority. We wonder whether this hedge has been unlawfully removed.
Another ongoing area of concern with local developments is heritage – and this case is certainly no exception. The area encompassing the tennis and cricket clubs plus the recreation ground are marked as an area of “Archaeological Potential” on the FHDC Interactive Map and the Kent Historic Environment Record shows a WWII pillbox stood on the recreation ground with dozens of wartime assets marked in the area including batteries including anti-aircraft facilities. It would be normal for planning permission in such an area to have a condition requiring either an archaeological dig or a watching brief.
It is evident no such instruction was made, as Mrs. Casey posted on a local history Facebook group, asking for information about the “huge (approx. 30’ x 10’) reinforced concrete base” that appeared during groundworks. Were there archaeologists on-site, they could no doubt have told her what the structure was. For some reason, Mrs. Casey was unwilling to share the location of the site – perhaps it is because she knew the club didn’t have planning permission and should probably have an expert to hand? The club then shared the find on their Facebook page, later adding a photograph of an American Victorian-era bottle top found during excavation. Local historians have been unable to determine what the structure was, which suggests that proper study would have been beneficial.
However, it should be noted that an aerial photograph from 1948 shows little evidence of anything standing there, though there is some disturbed soil immediately south of the area.
Google Earth images between 1990 and 2013 show a concrete structure in this location, so it is possible it was something more modern – although you would expect the club to remember something so recent. There is evidence of something standing there recently in the club’s before shot in the form of lighter grass. Was a WWII battery swiftly removed at the end of the war, or has something else been built.
Looking at aerial photographs, it is difficult to comprehend the need for a turning circle when the cars were neatly parked in the car park north of the pavilion. In fact, the newly created area is too large and too rectangular to be considered a turning circle – and cars already appear to be parking in it.
Surely that is the very definition of a car park? It is worth noting that the club posted updates throughout the five days of work, plus a couple of before and after shots. Four of these posts used the phrase “car park extension” and two used “car park”. We understand Hythe Town Council have pointed out to the club that they agreed to a turning circle, not a car park. Mysteriously, some of the posts now say “new car turning area” whilst others have been deleted. This is curious behaviour, as we are led to believe that the Local Planning Authority have requested that Hythe Lawn Tennis Club files a retrospective planning application. Why would the club attempt to conceal the fact they called it a car park?
Will the application be for a “turning circle”? We would suggest they haven’t done a very good job of hiding their tracks, as they have left photographic evidence of the area being used as a car park and a few posts calling it such.
We welcome the expansion and improvement of sporting facilities across the district. However, this should be carried out with due regard to Conservation Areas and heritage assets by following the planning process, especially in a historic Cinque Port such as Hythe.
The Shepway Vox Team
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