CHRISTMAS has been saved for Frome families after councillors ruled that Father Christmas could keep giving out presents in a nearby grotto.

Frome Santa’s Grottos operates in woodlands within Critchill Farm off Critch Hill, a stone’s throw from Frome Town Football Club’s training academy.

The enterprise, run by Craig Gillett, applied to Somerset Council to erect two timber sheds within the grounds to serve as a Santa’s Grotto, staffed by Father Christmas and Mrs Claus.

The council’s planning officers had previously refused planning permission for the structure in July, and recommended this decision be repeated since the had no public transport or cycle links.

But members of the council’s planning committee east (which covers the former Mendip area) went against their own officers on Tuesday evening and granted permission for the grotto to remain for the festive season, stating that doing otherwise would make them a “laughing stock”.

Craig Gillett – who is involved in the grotto – told the committee: “All Mrs Claus and our helpful elves want to do is to provide a place for people to visit us once a year.

“Everyone seems happy – apart from your planning officers.

“Nearly half of our visitors are local, and those who come from further afield combine their trip with shopping in the town.

“The site is not in open countryside or remote. Your officers’ interpretation of planning policy is literal and harsh.

“Your policies support local community facilities, economic development and visitor attractions. We want to offer a jolly and welcoming Christmas experiences for all our visitors.”

Somerset County Gazette: The grotto under construction.The grotto under construction. (Image: DE Planning)

Applicant agent Gordon Perry argued that Mr Gillett had done things “by the book”, despite the structures already being in place by early-December.

He said: “Our intentions was all good, to do things by the book. We were assured the buildings were all good, as they were within building regulation guidelines.

“The fact that we are the only grotto which offers a Mrs Claus locally is a boost, providing a comfortable environment for shy children.

“Most families visiting the site opt for car pooling and our foot traffic is minimal. We would be heartbroken to see the grotto cease business next year.”

Jim Dowling, chairman of Selwood Parish Council, spoke in favour of the plans in a statement read on his behalf.

He said: “Last year my daughter and her three-year-old son visited the grotto and considered it one of the best Santa experiences they’d ever had.

“If this was refused, it is likely that local customers will travel further afield, such as the East Somerset Railway. This is a high-class event that will attract visitors to Frome.”

Numerous unitary councillors expressed dismay that the plans had been previously refused, with Councillor Claire Sully (Mendip South) stating: “I’m embarrassed that this has come to committee.

“It’s Christmas, it’s a great idea and I want us to support local businesses.”

Councillor Helen Kay (Frome East) concurred: “We’re always allowing housing developments which are car-dependent. The impact of this will be minimal.”

Councillor Bente Height (Shepton Mallet) said: “We should be ashamed of ourselves for not making a decision on this sooner. We knew Christmas was coming.”

Councillor Barry Clarke (Mendip Central and East) added: “It surprises me that one planning officer can decide to stop this, which will benefit to children and families who need light relief at this time of year. If we refuse this, we will be a laughing stock.”

The committee voted to approve the plans by ten votes to two.

Councillor Nick Cottle, who chaired the committee, abstained from the vote, describing himself as a “half-Scrooge”.