Removing the economic shackles

I have a perfect case study from Adderbury (where I live) that demonstrates how difficult it is to start up a new business.  An enterprising lady, living in the village and with the necessary qualifications wants to start a private nursery on the Fired Earth site on the Oxford Road.   

She submitted a planning application to Cherwell Council for a change of use from office space to day nursery.  The proposal was for a nursery school for 35 children aged 6 months to 4 years opening 52 weeks in the year and with 6 members of staff.  The nursery would cater for working parents with operating hours from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.

Adderbury has a population of some 2,800.  It has a primary school; a library; several churches/chapels; three pubs; a shop that has closed and just re-opened and a very part-time post office.  It is not the most sustainable community in North Oxfordshire.  There are 4 registered child minders in the village and the primary school caters for children  aged 3 or more but only between 8:50 am and 3:10 pm during term time. There is a waiting list in double digits for this limited provision.  The government is introducing vouchers for two-year olds in 2013 which means many parents will wish to prepare their children in advance of entering formal education.

Against this background, she sought to meet a clear need for childcare but was denied the opportunity by the planning system.  What reasons were given?  I am afraid Oxfordshire County Council opposed the application for the following reason:  The application site is not accessible by means of transport other than the private car and is hence considered an unsustainable proposal. The site is located outside the built up area of the village and exceeds a realistic walking distance for young children, particularly given the gradients in the vicinity. Both outside and within the site there is a lack of continuous and adequate footpaths and associated infrastructure such as dropped kerbs and tactile paving etc. There is also concern re possible conflict with nursery and commercial traffic within the site and in proximity to the A4260.

In addition to these concerns, there is a lack of information submitted with this application, namely a transport statement, travel plan statement, design and access statement and car parking plan.

Pinch yourself, reader.  This is a nursery for children aged six months to 4 years and planners are expecting them to walk or cycle there! Furthermore, they are expecting accompanying parents to walk their charges to the nursery and then to return to their homes to get in their cars to go to work!  In what world do these planners live?  Here we have a facility that working parents are crying out for. Here we have an office building that was permitted to accommodate workers arriving in their cars but planners can forbid parents and nursery staff from doing the same.  What a crazy world. I suspect the real truth lies in the final paragraph of the County Council response.  I suspect the applicant committed the unforgivable crime of failing to submit four items of bureaucratic nonsense, namely: a transport statement; a travel plan statement; a design and access statement and a car parking plan.  Having failed the tick box test, this application was always doomed.

You will understand the real peversity of this decision when you realise that the poor pedestiran access to the site is down to the County Council as highway authority. What a wonderful reason for opposing a planning application!  The County Council ought to be deciding how to upgrade the pedestrian access to this site so as to increase the potential for our local economy.

The enterprising lady promoting this nursery shelled out some dosh to pay for a planning  consultant to put together the necessary bureaucratic twaddle for a second application.  This was recommended for refusal by planning officers for pretty much the same reasons as before but elected members demonstrated some backbone and approved the application.  However, that was just the start of her problems.

While elected members can overturn a recommendation from a planning officer, the officer can write a whole host of conditions before the application is approved.   As a result, this nursery is now required to provide a bicycle park that is covered. A significant expense.  Pinch yourself again reader and remember that the parents will be bringing children aged 6 months to 4 years to this nursery.  How many will be riding bicycles?  I doubt many will even sneak a cigarette in the bike sheds.

That is not the end of the difficulties.  A nursery has to be Ofsted approved but Ofsted will not inspect until all of the staff are in place and can be checked out.  However, how many staff will accept a job offer at a nursery without Ofsted accreditation?  A case of Catch 22!

I suspect this is a microcosm of the sheer impossibility of setting up a business in our sad country, saddled with EU directives, ‘elf & safety and Lord knows what else in the way of large blockages on enterprise.  It is time for a change.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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