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Loyalty has its place - but not at any expense

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It was a revealing, if uncharacteristic, letter (AJ 27.11.03) signed by the director of planning regarding the application approvals for the listed Malting House in Cambridge; with scarcely a reference to the actual issues raised earlier, the planning department clearly preferred to dwell on the personal.

This may have its origin in the normally commendable wish to defend staff. Loyalty has its place, but not at any expense.

Conservation officers, for instance, do not and cannot be expected to have encyclopedic knowledge. When, as here, four Arts and Crafts experts have commented in detail in their own territory, such views require full representation.

These experts and the neighbours (whose collective views I was asked to represent as the single permitted spokesperson - as Mr Studdert, for whose ability I have a considerable regard, was fully aware) were entitled to expect a balanced planning officers' report to the lay committee.

Yet the report, for instance, was disproportionately long on the comments of Darwin College, the applicants, quoted almost verbatim, and seriously short on others' views. The report concluded with the recommendation 'approve'. Could it be that, in the planners' own words, it was the process and the officers' report that were 'disingenuous and patronising'?

The basis for decisions on such applications is seldom straightforward. With regard to this unique Smith and Brewer family residence in a unique location, all that locals and the independent experts required was proper representation and acknowledgement, leading to informed committee discussion of the information presented in their detailed letters.

At least the neighbours can understand the process and attitude that prevailed at meetings when I attempted to present their case in three minutes.

Cutbacks in staffing take their toll; it is sad that the normally good work done in the city is marred by this particular response. Perhaps it is a oneoff aberration, but there are implications - apocalyptic no, disturbing yes.

David Owers, Cambridge

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