On the 4th of March 2009 Cambridge City Councillors on the planning committee are going to consider an application to demolish 13 Chesterton Road and replace it with a modern block of flats. The proposal has attracted lots of comments from people opposing the demolition of the existing building on aesthetic, historical and environmental grounds.
The applicants have submitted a structural report submitted prepared by Guy Dolby of PD Consulting Engineers, Cambridge which claims the existing building is structurally unsound and beyond economical repair. The report says that the recent fire in December 2008 did not make the situation substantially worse but states states that there has been “significant structural movement” and that “differential settlement has given rise to concern with regards to the long term stability of the structure” and recommends “demolition takes place as soon as practical”.
The structural report concludes:
In view of the degree of damage that has occurred to this property, in our opinion to ensure the long-term stability of this building would require such significant structural repair that this would not be a viable option on the grounds of cost and safety, and consequently would recommend that this building is demolished.
One of the main problems is that local residents, looking at the building from the outside with largely non-expert, but experienced eyes don’t believe the building is in such a poor state it needs to be demolished. I too find the structural report hard to believe.
Councillors (ward councillors and members of the planning committee I believe) made a site visit to inspect the interior of the property on the 19th of February. As far as I’m aware councillors will not have access to an independent structural report of their own, they will have had to have a look around and apply their own common sense and determine if they believe the professionals who have written the structural report submitted as part of the planning application. I do not think that councillors are in possession of enough independent information to be able to make a decision here. I would go further and say that residents don’t have enough information on which to base representations either. I would have thought that someone on the huge public-sector pay-roll within the City would have the qualifications and experience to offer an independent opinion on the structural state of the property; we might yet see that when the planning officer’s report is published but I would be surprised.
This decision is going to the council’s planning committee, rather than the North Area committee. This might be a matter of timing, or it may be due to the location of the building in a conservation area and on a boundary between areas. Given the strength of local feeling clearly this is one application which it would be good to see come to an Area Committee, held in the evening where more people will have an opportunity to participate in or listen to the debate. I hope that even if the decision is taken at the planning meeting our local ward councillors attend and put forward the concerns of residents.
Anne Garvey, a resident of Hertford Street objected to the demolition and asked the councillors to take heed of objections made to the previous application for planning permission on this site and not to expect everyone to re-submit them. This is a key problem with the planning process, that to comment and object at every stage is very time consuming and requires a careful eye to be kept on the progress of a development. We shouldn’t have a system where developers can wear down local people’s opposition to a proposal by resubmitting it over and over in the style of an Irish referendum.
In light of a hole in the roof which she claimed had been left unpatched for many years Anne Garvey also encouraged councilors to take into account the section of Planning Policy Guidance 15 (PPG15) which states: “in the rare cases where it is clear that a building has been deliberately neglected in the hope of obtaining consent for demolition, less weight should be given to the costs of repair “.
The structural report states:
Vandalism resulting in damage to the rood covering has led to water ingress to the central part of the property in the area where most significant structural damage is present.
On the question of viability, another objector, [Name removed following request suggesting risk of harm], commented that the fact the existing owner might have paid too much for the property ought not be taken into consideration during the planning process.
Another objector, Alison Taylor, who describes herself as the Chair of the “Castle Community Action Group”, wrote that the adverse structural report submitted by the applicants is disputed by local architects.
While the new proposed flats are not anything approaching as characterful as the existing building on the site, they do appear to be a lot better than some of the recently built blocks in the city. The application states that the proposed building “will follow all the key characteristics of the Victorian buildings nearby”, however I do not think there is enough detail with in the application to assure me of that (bay windows?), the sections of the application on materials, and design emphasis are brief. Again I think there is a lack of information, and if councillors “don’t know” then I think they have to take the conservative course of action and vote against the proposals until they can have confidence in a proposal. One could argue that the aspect facing onto Hertford Street would be an improvement as there would be a reduction in the amount of blank wall, however the increased total size of the proposed new building will I think detract from that.
The applicants draw attention to the fact that: “In the Committee Report for the previous scheme the Planning Officer stated that the building’s demolition would not be opposed provided that the quality of the resubmitted building preserved or enhanced the character and appearance of the Conservation area”. This building is in a conservation area and the council’s own conservation officers have said that it makes an important contribution to that area. If this building is lost, then the whole area will be dominated by poor quality high density accommodation which does not sit well with the beautiful established residential streets in the area.
- Why have some substantive trees on the site been cut down before the planning application has been considered?
- Why are plans, or at least artists impressions, not made publicly available online (other than by me)? I have watched councillors who have not been into the council offices to look at the plans determine planning applications and complain about the lack of such information in their papers.
- Why are only very near neighbours to a proposed development like this formally consulted when it would clearly be of interest to so many more – for example all residents of Hertford Street and Magrath Avenue ?
- Why are all letters of support / objection sent to the council not made available online as they are submitted so others can build on or refute what they are saying?
- Perhaps the lull in planning applications in the city, which is not being met with a reduction in staff levels in the planning department, will provide an opportunity for an overhaul of the council’s processes and communication.
The planning officers’ report is due to be published on the 24th of February, I intend to update this article in light of it.