Practical Places to Live Verses Conservation

Saturday, September 5th, 2009. 12:26pm

An application to put a front dormer window in the roof of 7 Pretoria Road, and build a rear roof extension, was considered at Cambridge City Council’s North Area Committee on the 27th of August 2009. The house is in the recently introduced “De Freville Avenue” conservation area. Other houses on the street light their loft extensions with Velux windows at the front; windows which are flush with the roof and do not significantly protrude from it. The applicant would probably have followed his neighbours had it not been for the guidance associated with the new conservation area which he believed was saying that building out to create a dormer was more appropriate.

The applicant noted that he had followed the conservation area appraisal in designing his proposed extension and thought what he was proposing was in line with it. The conservation area appraisal states that dormer windows are preferred over Velux windows; a statement which was described as being “contrary to normal guidance”. Cllr Boyce had asked for the application to be brought to the committee so that councillors could resolve the conflicting messages in the council’s policies.

The council’s planning officer told councillors that they would not in-fact be resolving this conflict as all they would be doing is deciding this particular case. The officer advised there would be no need to change the conservation area appraisal even if they made a decision which went against what it was saying.

Cllr Boyce did not vote on the application because he knew the applicant. Cllr Todd-Jones did not vote for reasons I have published separately.

The remaining seven councillors all agreed with the officer’s recommendation to refuse the application, with only Ian Nimmo-Smith giving his reasons why (councillors agreeing with their officers are not compelled to explain their vote). Cllr Blair did speak but only to comment on a minor grammatical error in the officer’s report.

I think strategic planning is needed to in relation to areas of the city where it is appropriate to increase the density of housing. How will the evolution of places like North Street (left) into the likes of Salmon Lane (right) be influenced?

I think strategic planning is needed to in relation to areas of the city where it is appropriate to increase the density of housing. How will the evolution of places like North Street (left) into the likes of Salmon Lane (right) be influenced?

My Views

  • I agree a front dormer window would have been inappropriate on this property alone, but would like to see clearer strategic planning, looking at areas of the city and deciding if and how the density of accommodation ought be allowed to be increased. It may be that streets such as this are appropriate for a third story, and front dormers are the best way of ensuring that the accommodation on that third story is of high quality. If that was decided then change has to start somewhere. More high density city centre housing is in my view a good way to make housing more affordable and to increase supply. I think lack of affordable quality housing has to be given more weight in planning decisions and I would like to see more city centre development in preference to the sprawling new estates being built in fields in the middle of nowhere.
  • I have not seen the existence of conservation areas really affect planning decisions in the north of the city. When applied to areas such as parts of Chesterton or the De Freville Avenue area they simply push the costs of home ownership up and will I think result in a more divided city as cheaper rental properties will be less likely to be found in those areas in the future. People will also be forced to move, rather than be allowed to adapt their homes to cope with their changing circumstances. I think the planning system, in the absence of a conservation area, is sufficient to preserve the essential character of the area. I, unlike the Liberal Democrats, am in favour of ensuring Cambridge a practical place to live.
  • I think councillors ought to have considered the front and rear works separately. The officer’s suggested reasons for refusal (which councillors agreed with) did not include any reasons relating to the rear roof extension. It was reported to a recent East Area Committee that the planning inspector criticised the council for not separating elements of applications.
  • The lack of clarity in the council’s policies ought be corrected, it has already cost this applicant significant amounts of time and money, there is a need to ensure others do not suffer in the same way.
  • I think that all councillors have a duty to explain why they are voting as they are when they make such important decisions which have huge impacts on people’s lives. I was very unimpressed by those councillors who chose not to speak and explain their views.

See Also

17 comments/updates on “Practical Places to Live Verses Conservation

  1. David Hollingsbee

    What type of dormer was proposed for the front of the property? Was it one of the big box dormers the whole width of the house (usually considered to be pretty ugly) or the more attractive type as in the top centre of your photo of “North Street”?

    You comment that “More high density city centre housing is in my view a good way to make housing more affordable and to increase supply.” but presumably this loft conversion, if had been permitted, would have increased the value of the property, and removed one of the relatively cheaper houses in that street from the total supply.

  2. Richard Article author


    The officer’s report, which describes the proposed work, is available on the City Council website.

    If we are to provide more homes, the alternative to high density city centre living is the out of town new builds which we are seeing.

    High density city centre housing is popular (as evidenced by the high free market prices of terraced houses off Mill Road) and is also excellent from the point of view of public transport provision (and therefore congestion, energy efficiency etc.). I think having more people living in such housing is a desirable way of providing additional homes in the city.

    Of course larger properties are generally more valuable than smaller ones, that’s not an argument for not creating them! Larger properties are in short supply in the city. Building lots of “relatively cheaper” two bed houses does not provide practical accommodation for those who need more space.

    When they are split into flats, or rented room by room larger properties can be cheaper than for individuals to live in than smaller ones. While I would not want to force it; intensification of the use of city centre properties is an inevitable and desirable consequence of growth.

    We need to build, or allow extensions to create, houses of the size people need and want to live in. I do not believe that the current prefer trend of building rabbit hutch sized properties in the middle of nowhere provides an acceptable solution to the lack of affordable housing in the region and in the country and am suggesting an alternative, both doing better at increasing the density of the housing stock we already have in the city and building more city centre homes at the density of Victorian terraces. The Beehive Centre site shouldn’t contain a traffic attracting retail park, an area of high density housing which would be an efficient way of providing extra homes.

  3. David Vincent

    I quite like dormers, if they are done well. I’m not sure I like the idea of two uneven dormers on the same roof. There does appear to be an obsession with frontages, even relatively tedious ones, whilst awful higgledy-piggledy extensions at the back go through on the nod. If an absence of dormers means that you never get the first dormer, then what we are seeking to conserve is the flat line of the roofs. I have always had a soft spot for uneven sky-lines, rather than rigid ones (except in the very best terraces). Isn’t the appearance of a streetscape a very subjective decision? Why should be stop the roofline being affected, but allow people to destroy their gardens for parking places etc? Having said that, I am not sure that extending properties to increase the number of people you can get in an HMO is the right idea. Enabling families to expand, rather than move, if one thing. Enabling you to cram a nanny in the loft may be in line with thre tradition of the area. Getting another couple of renters in just to increase the rent yield (at the expense of two more wheelybins in the front garden) doesn’t strike me as the best of reasons for increasing density.

  4. Richard Article author

    The Government ran a consultation between May and August 2009 floating the idea that for a group of three unrelated people to share a house ought need planning permission. This would allow people, such as those who’ve campaigned for the conservation area in De Freville Avenue, to lobby the council to prevent students, young professionals and other sharers living in “their area”. I strongly oppose this and think that if a property becomes a small (under six people) HMO ought be an economic decision for the the property owner, I don’t think there’s any need for government interference. If this proposal became law and the local council used its new powers I think it could immensely damage Cambridge, a city which I think, benefits greatly from having a broad mix of people living in close proximity.

    While I don’t think Cambridge Liberal Democrats have expressed a view on the proposals in Bath, Loughborough, Nottingham and Southampton Liberal Democrats are keen to get powers to use the planning laws for social engineering. Liberal Democrats in Bath have written:

    Now we have a chance to tip the balance in favour of residents.

    I do think we ought be looking to reduce the number of HMOs, but by making more appriopriate and affordable housing available, rather than trying to shift the “problem” out of certain streets using the planning law.

  5. David Vincent

    I think there is merit in making an HMO a “change of use” in planning terms. I also think there is merit in restricting HMOs in many areas, making it a condition that it has adequate arrangements for rubbish disposal, bike storage, a condition in any tenancy about car ownership and\or parking and similar issues. And also, perhaps, that it has to be managed by a “fit and proper person”, for all the good that does “Studentification” is a problem in some towns, but not especially in Cambridge. In Cambridge, I think the HMO problems are as much the “young professionals” and the immigrant workers as the student. Maintaining a mix of households is crucial. It seems the private rented market will always go for maximisation of income, which means there is a significant incentive not to rent to families. That must be wrong.

  6. Richard Article author


    Larger HMOs already, quite reasonably, need permission and are regulated. The proposals I oppose are those which would introduce additional regulation for the smaller HMOs – down to just three unrelated people living together.

    What if two brothers sharing a house wanted to take in a lodger – ought that require planning permission? I don’t think it should. I am in favour of giving people quite a lot of freedom in terms of what they can do with their property and think the proposals. I don’t think that the state ought be interfering too much with the market.

    In my view the key element of HMO legislation ought not be social engineering but ensuring properties are safe. In Cambridge there are areas where I think there ought to be more regulation, for example with respect to University accommodation, which is currently exempt from provisions which apply to privately owned HMOs. Currently many students, researchers and university staff live in very poor conditions which would not be acceptable for those being housed by the state. I have suggested previously that the exemptions should not apply to accommodation used all year round by staff and graduate students.

    I agree that maintaining a mix of households is crucial, and I think that the way a huge variety of people live close to each other in Cambridge is of huge benefit to the city. I think that the current (largely Liberal Democrat) policies and proposals are worrying; I don’t want to see a University Staff only housing estate in one part of the city, and an area in which student housing has been forced out via a conservation area being applied in another.

    I think another area where policies are at fault is in the lack of large (4+ bedroom) properties being built. Current policies aimed at provision of social housing do not address the need for such larger properties.

  7. David Vincent


    Personally, I think the new proposals are a good thing. I don’t think that resident landlords who take in a “lodger” would fall within the definition of an HMO likely to be used in any proposed legislation (although I admit I haven’t read any drafts at this stage).

    In any event, I imagine that I differ from you in the levels of “social engineering” I think should be involved in planning (and other) legislation, and in the extent to which I believe the market is the most (or only) appropriate tool for such “social engineering” as does take place.

    There is absolutely no doubt that a proliferation of HMOs affects the character of any area. As I understand the proposals, they would give local councils the power to designate particular areas in which use as an HMO would be regarded as a “change of use” and require specific planning consent (and perhaps licensing, where this is currently not required). I assume, in particular, Councils might use that power to refuse consent for properties that could not demonstrate adequate means for the storage and disposal of the increased household waste that comes with an HMO or adequate means of storage for bicycles (and\or adequate parking facilities in an area). I assume through licensing they would be able to try and ensure that landlords were “fit and proper” persons, who would manage the properties well (and keep them safe of course). I think that would be largely beneficial. For my part, I would also hope the legislation would be retrospective, so that it would apply to existing HMOs in any newly designated area, except for those properties where the owner could demonstrate “established use” (12 years continuous use as an HMO would be the test I think).

    Presumably a Council could and would be sensitive in designating areas and would then have to be reasonable to how it dealt with individual planning applications. I would not expect blanket bans. It would be the sort of approach I recall existing in the past under “structure plans” and the like (I am sure the old “Romsey plan” back in the 1980s gave the Council power to prevent more properties in the smaller streets off Mill Road being turned into HMOs).

    Incidentally, I keep an open mind on the concept of a “university staff and student” estate (although one does wonder how far down the employment tree the University is thinking of going). The move away from the old paternalism has not been all for the good. Many parts of Cambridge were originally built for college servants (and have now been taken over by the middle classes), just as many other parts were built for railway workers, or other groups of low-ranking and low-paid employees (and, similarly, are now in the hands of those further up the social hierarchies and wealth scales).

    It is hard to see how Cambridge will ever have enough staff for either the universities or for other vital infrastructure (let alone the less important infrastructure such as clothes shops and the leisure industry)unless major employers go back to providing accommodation. It is clear that local authorities no longer have the resources (in particular the land)to provide enough affordable accommodation themselves and, in the present financial climate, I do not think we can anticipate significant new investment in “social housing”.

    I am not quite clear about your point on larger properties. Do you mean that we need more large affordable houses (say in new developments such as Cambourne and Arbury Park)? I am not clear there is a demonstrable need for these, and I assume the scope of the developments is based on the housing needs surveys the local authorities carry out, unless there is some pressure for headline unit numbers that favours smaller properties. And it does seem odd that the new developments are subject to strict “local lettings plans” in relation to the social housing element – so that the number and ages of the children in any prospective tenant families is strictly controlled and monitored – yet, in the “open market” part of the same developmen, a four or five bedroom house may be sold to, say, a family with five children, a childless couple who want a lot of space or a speculative landlord who is going to rent to eight or nine unrelated adults, without anyone asking any questions except “Have you got the money?”.

  8. David Vincent

    Incidentally, wouldn’t it be fascinating if a rich speculator with a sense of humour were to buy one of those “exclusive” properties in Templemore Close and turn it into an HMO for student nurses – for example – or for other low-paid employees at Addenbrookes? I wonder if those properties have anything in their deeds restricting the free operation of the market?

  9. Richard Article author

    Do you mean that we need more large affordable houses (say in new developments such as Cambourne and Arbury Park)? I am not clear there is a demonstrable need for these

    The demonstrative need can be shown by statistics from Cambridge’s “Home-Link” Choice Based Letting system. I have attended a number of council meetings where fact the demand for larger properties via this system exceeds supply has been raised; particularly by Labour members of the council.

    I assume the scope of the developments is based on the housing needs surveys the local authorities carry out, unless there is some pressure for headline unit numbers that favours smaller properties.

    Developers are able to meet their “affordable housing” and social housing requirements by building one and two bedroom homes; there is a focus on the number of units and developers obviously try and fulfil their obligations in the cheapest possible way.

    I do believe the open market is the best way of distributing homes, both because it is much more responsive than any government (including local government) intervention to changing demands and because I believe that we ought have minimise state interference in people’s lives and what they do with property they own.

    A major problem with the current way “affordable housing” is being provided on developments around Cambridge is that we’re not looking to homes which are affordable to buy outright. In fact by requiring 40-50% of properties be social housing of one form or another, or available on part-ownership deals we’re reducing the amount available on the open market and keeping the supply of homes available to buy outright low.

    House prices, as a multiple of average income,are currently in my view too high. A major reason for this , has been the availability of credit and the willinness of people to take up the large loans available. Demand exceeding supply also contributes; if more of the new homes to be built around Cambridge were available on the open market, prices would come down, that would benefit all those who currently cannot afford to live in the kind of accommodation they would like to (and in many cases need to have a reasonable standard of living).

    One of the biggest things driving me to get involved in the democratic process is the situation we have where so many people cannot afford reasonable places to live. I see it as of of our major societal problems; and something creating increasing divides between the rich and poor; young and old; house owning and home renting.

    It is clear that local authorities no longer have the resources (in particular the land)to provide enough affordable accommodation themselves and, in the present financial climate, I do not think we can anticipate significant new investment in “social housing”.

    That is entirely right; but it is worth stressing that local planning authorities can, and do, “create” value by giving planning permission on land; harnessing that increase in capital value and ensuring as much as possible goes on improving infrastructure and making homes more affordable is crucial.

  10. David Vincent

    One problem with minimising any interference in the wishes and desires of property owners is that it pays little attention to the needs and desires of those who do not own property. The fetishisation of owner-occupation has led only to a situation where housing is regarded as “wealth” rather than “homes”, with the consequent distortions in both the economy and the social fabric which we are now seeing unravel. Had the state interfered with the market more in the past, we would not have seen the need for such massive and wasteful interventions in the market as were needed to bail out the incompetent financial industry. Without substantial taxation on either wealth or development land (or both), I do not see how there will ever be a significant correction in the impossible equation between average earnings and average property prices. A removal of planning constraints, such as the green belt, would only have a very temporary impact before the available land disappeared again into the land banks of the speculative developers, to be dribbled out as and when it suited them. As we can see, “the market” has not responded to the current massive demand for housing in this area by building more houses, but by stopping building at all until those houses can once again be sold at inflated and unaffordable prices.

  11. Richard Article author


    We agree on one point then – that more of the value added to land by virtue of it being given planning permission ought to be used for the public good.

    If we elected stronger councils we could, though the planning system, ensure that development actually took place once permission was given. Arbury Park is an example where such provisions were in place but failed.

    If there was a free market developers would be able to build more homes; it is the ever increasing requirement for them to build affordable and social housing which has made development uneconomic in recent years. If a reduction in the fraction of so-called “affordable” housing on new development sites results in new homes being built, increasing the supply, then that would in my view be a good thing. What is appalling is that in Cambridge, with respect to the Clay Farm and Glebe Farm sites this decision is now out of the hands of local democratically elected individuals and up to an unelected unaccountable planning inspector.

    I do not believe that housing ought be held in common and distributed on the basis of need. Such a system, if it wasn’t working perfectly, would be a recipe for corruption and favouritism; not to mention the corrosive effect it would have on ambition and society. If you want to pursue such a policy there is a political party you could join – though they got about one thousand votes in a nation of 60m people the last time there was a general election.

    If you don’t take such an extreme view, then perhaps we have even more in common; my position isn’t right at the other end of the spectrum. As with most matters I take a moderate view, in the best interests of Cambridge and the Country.

  12. David Vincent


    For a discussion on dormer windows, this is becoming somewhat wide-ranging.

    You show a touching faith in the “free market”, which I cannot share.

    We will not lower house prices by simply allowing developers to pay less tax (which is in essence what S106 requirements are). We will just increase their profits. And by insisting on a mixed development, there is some chance of maintaining the diversity of community you say you want.

    I have no objection to owner-occupation as a form of tenure, merely as a form of investment.
    The fact that runaway inflation has made investment in residential property so profitable in recent years has discouraged individuals from investing in any other ways, with consequent distortions to the economy. The fact that it has been funded by reckless lending has left the country in appalling debt. The fact that much housing is unaffordable except for families with two good incomes has distorted family life. And, of course, rampant house price inflation has widened the gaps between the rich and the poor. I view all of this as a bad thing.

    The home-loan industry – as with other forms of finance – has been riddled with corruption for years and the whole structure has already had a corrosive effect on society. I am not sure how much more damage could be done by the public development of housing which was then distributed on the basis of need (which is what local authority housing used to be, I recall).

    A wealth tax (such as now proposed in the vaguest of terms by Dr Cable) might be a start, although I would prefer to tie it in with a Capital Gains Tax on the unearned increase in value of any residential property. Increases in value by improvement would not be taxable, but increase in value by doing nothing apart from sit in (or on) a property would be taxed heavily, that tax used to fund affordable housing for others.

    Those with the ambition to make money could try more imaginative ways of doing so than simply taking out the biggest mortgage they could lie their way into and hoping they’d be able to pay it by remortaging every few years against increased capital value (which would also become taxable of course).

    At the same time, it should be made easier to move in and out of different forms of tenure (so owner-occupiers could revert to part renting if they were unable to pay their mortgages). Loans made by lenders on ridiculous terms (eg impossible earning multiples) would be made unenforceable by possession action, thus requiring mortgage lenders to make only sensible loans.

    However, I see no political party capable of the sort of radical action necessary. After all, the crucial swing voters are probably owner-occupiers who want to protect their own position (albeit at the expense of their children). Which was this party with the 1000 voters?

    On the other hand, of course, the bringing of all development land into common ownership would in itself be no bad thing. but I do think it is even less likely to happen in the immediate future.

    “There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be the common Treasury for evey man” (Gerard Winstanley)

  13. Richard Article author


    The party proposing housing ought be held in common and distributed on the basis of need and getting only about 1000 votes nationwide is, obviously, the Communist party. Gerard Winstanley’s views were Communist.

    Capital gains tax on a primary residence would be a terrible idea. It would be a massive dampener on the market, it would be a deterrent to the mobility of the population and would deter people from moving to more suitable homes at different parts of their lives. It would increase the cost of housing over the course of a lifetime for owner-occupiers who moved house. It would increase the costs of housing. It’s a non-starter.

  14. David Vincent

    Mothing obvious about it. I know there are a number of Communist parties out there, but that is certainly not part of the policy of the Communist Party of Britain nor the remaining part of the Communist Party of Great Britain. As far as I am aware they are both simply committed to massive reinvestment in council housing and reorganisation of housing finance. Something akin to the policies of the Attlee government, in fact.

    Winstanley, of course, traced his own beliefs in common ownership back to the Bible. I am not sure you could call him a communist except in a very loose usage of the term. “Communalist” might be a better expression. And you should salute him as a fellow republican.

    And yes, dampening the housing market and depressing the price of property is a necessity. As you said yourself “house prices are too high”. I have never quite understood why it is seen as a good thing when anything becomes cheaper, except houses (and perhaps drugs and alcohol).

  15. Richard Article author

    Of course I admire what Winstanley and Cromwell did; I don’t agree with everything though – they went too far.

    “I have never quite understood why it is seen as a good thing when anything becomes cheaper”

    The important thing is the fraction of income spent on things. At the moment, due to high fuel prices, we have a problem with people on low fixed incomes spending a high proportion of their income on heating. This gives them less freedom to do other fun and life enriching activities.
    The less time, effort, and funds spent on the basics like food and shelter the more resources there are for individuals and society to use on exciting stuff which results in progress for humanity and makes peoples lives happier. The extra resources can be turned to science, culture, space travel, better food, travel or anything else which is only possible as the “costs” of fulfilling basic needs are low enough to leave the opportunity for such freedom and discretion.

  16. David Vincent

    Is that an advertising break? Ironic if you end up promoting dormer conversions. As I understand the definition of “affordable” housing, people should not have to spend more than 30% of their income on shelter. Letting agents regularly use the figure of 40% or 50% when deciding what prospective tenants can afford. And for years mortgage landers have never really cared about “affordability”, merely whether they could protect their loan. If the price of houses is forced down then they become more affordable. And people can afford other things (although probably not space travel). The problem is that people who have bought houses were not paying for shelter, they thought they were “investing in property”. Which is what distorts the whole debate.

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