New Flats to be Built in a Garden in the Chesterton Conservation Area

Friday, December 12th, 2008. 3:57am

Photo of 7 Church Street Chesterton
Cambridge City Council’s North Area Committee on the 11th of December 2008 approved a planning application to build a block of flats in the garden of 7 Church Street, Chesterton.

Mr Bond spoke on behalf of the Old Chesterton Residents Association (OCRA), he opposed the application. He wanted the area to remain mixed, and he opposed too many small homes being created, he wanted the large detached house with a garden to remain just that. Homes with postage stamp sized gardens were not suitable for, and would not attract families he said. He said that he felt the fate of No. 7 Church Street following the development in its garden would likely be for it to become a house of multiple occupancy. Mr Bond said this “wasn’t appropriate on a prime site”.

I largely agree with Mr Bond in that I think maintaining a variety of property types in an area is crucial, and that mixed areas where people at different stages in their lives and with different means live side by side are desirable. I think this is one of Cambridge’s strengths. I do feel though that his comment about HMOs not being appropriate on a prime site showed a prejudice rising from Mr Bond and those he represents against students, young professionals and others who live in HMOs. I believe often larger, older, substantial buildings are ideal for such use.

Mr Bond strongly objected to comments the planning officer had made in the report:

In my opinion number 7 Church Street is a neutral building which neither contributes nor detracts from the appearance of the Conservation Area. The building is of little historic merit and its loss would not be resisted in principle.

Mr Bond said that the building was one of the first private houses to have been built in Cambridge after the war, he said its design reflected Lutyens, and said the house also reflected what he called the “austerity rules”.

Cllr Blair said that she took exception to section 8.3 of the officer’s report which says:

In principle, policy 3/10 of the Cambridge Local Plan 2006, supports proposals for the sub-division of existing plots to allow residential development in the garden area or curtilage of existing dwellings. Development of this nature will not be permitted however if it will have a significant adverse impact on the amenities of neighbouring properties through loss of privacy, light or an overbearing sense of enclosure, provide inadequate amenity space or vehicular access arrangements or detract from the prevailing character and appearance of the area.

She claimed the officer had mis-represented what was stated in the Local Plan, however once she had said she was disagreeing with the officer, she went on to say that the council looks to develop inside the curtilage of existing properties where possible. As far as I can tell this appears to be exactly what the officer had written in the report.

Cllr Blair also objected to the fact brief details of previous applications were included in the report, saying that this detracted from the principle of assessing each individual application on its merits. She appeared to be making the reasonable point that just because this application is better than a previous one doesn’t mean in itsself this application should be considered favourably. Each application should be judged on its own merits, the fact the applicants had tried hard and improved things since last time isn’t relevant. However by suggesting details of previous applications should not have been mentioned at all I think Cllr Blair went too far. I believe such an approach is a symptom of planning training, to which she has given too much weight. Cllr Ward disagreed with Cllr Blair and said he found it useful to have a mention of previous applications in the report.

Cllr Blair also asked if a condition should be added to ensure the existing 1.8m wall was retained. The officer replied that this was not necessary as : “conservation area consent would be needed for wall demolition”. Effectively another planning application would be required.

The officer explained an unusual condition being added, which in effect amended the plans before councillors, she explained it had been judged reasonable to do this, and not consult again on the amended plans because the amendments only affected the rear neighbours, not the street scene.

Cllr McGovern took up a concern raised by an objector about the possibility of the proposed building affecting the flight path of bats, he noted the habitat and biodiversity report concluded that there were no priority habitats on the site but pointed out that if bats were flying overhead they would not be on the site. The officer said that councillors should base their decision on the biodiversity report, and she said that report did not refer to bat flight paths.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith complained that nothing in the report gave him an idea of what the new building would look like, he said it wasn’t easy to visualise the quality of the design. The officer responded that there were mentions of materials to be used, and comments on the front elevation in the report. The extent of the mention of materials she referred to is limited to: “The building is to be constructed in a buff brick with a plain tiled roof. ” I think Cllr Nimmo-Smith made a valid point here. Perhaps more applicants in future will consider providing an artist’s impression / photo mock-up or similar to assist councillors?

Cllr Blair asked about cycle parking, and asked the officer if the provision was in line with the council’s standards on cycle parking. The officer replied that the council’s standards required one cycle parking space per bedroom for new developments, and that there were currently four cycle parking hoops proposed, which could take two bikes each. There were three two bed flats, and a three bed duplex proposed, taking the total number of bedrooms to nine. Councillors added the requirement for nine usable cycle parking spaces to be incorporated into the project.

Cllr Pitt said he agreed with some of what Mr Bond had said, it was his opinion too that No.7 Church Street was a building of some interest and character. He did however believe that the proposed plans conserved the timber frontage. I believe he was suggesting that the plans adequately took account of the site’s context in being next to No. 7.

Cllr Blair returned to her earlier point about section 3/10 of the local plan. Just a few minutes earlier she had said: “the council looks to develop inside the curtilage of existing properties where possible”, now she interpreted the local plan, and thereby the Council’s policy as being: “we look to protect gardens”, then just seconds after that statement, without giving any reasons for the case in question being an exception, she voted in favour of approving the application and allowing the development of a block of flats in the garden of No.7 Church Street Chesterton to go ahead. In total five Liberal Democrat City Councillors voted to approve the application.

Cllrs Holness and Nimmo-Smith voted against, Cllr Nimmo-Smith justified their decision in reference to sections 3/4 (Responding to Context) and 3/12 (The Design of New Buildings ) of the local plan.  If Cllrs Holness and Nimmo-Smith had really applied themselves to arguing their point of view they might have been able to encourage other councillors to vote with them. The lack of any substantive persuasion and debate in public made me wonder how much deliberation had gone on behind closed doors before the meeting.

I was surprised, that apart from in relation to the wall, there was so little consideration given to the fact this site was within a conservation area. While the officer’s report identified “Impact upon the character and appearance of the Conservation Area” as a key issue, councillors did not focus on this. A conservation area is being proposed in the “De Freville” area of the city, which is within a mile of this site. Discussions relating to the establishment of that conservation area are focusing on the elements which give that area its unique character, and discuss what those proposing the area think ought be conserved. I am surprised that the officers report and councillor’s discussion made no reference to the special characteristics of the Chesterton conservation area and how this proposal related to them. I cannot see how this application would have been treated significantly differently if the conservation area was not in place. I am left wondering, if a development like this can gain permission so easily in the conservation area, what is the point of the conservation area at all.

Arbury Labour Councillor Mike Todd-Jones was not present for this discussion, he generally does not vote on planning applications. Cllr Todd-Jones made a good contribution to the debate on the planning application relating to the KFP takeaway at 113 Histon Road which was considered at the previous North Area Committee

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