Thetford: Abbey Barns, Monksgate: Demolition of buildings on site and erection of 15 units, conversion of barns to 6 units and conversion of listed building to 5 units for H G Developments: 3PL/2008/1339/LB & 3PL/2008/1340/F (Agenda Item 10)
Report of the Development Services Manager.
It was noted that these two applications for planning permission and listed building consent would be considered together and voted on separately at the conclusion of the discussion.
The proposal was to create 26 dwellings by the conversion of existing buildings to 11 units and the demolition of other buildings and their replacement with 15 new-build dwellings. It was an almost identical scheme to one previously approved by Committee, currently the subject of a legal challenge.
Members were shown a coloured map clearly identifying those buildings to be converted (in yellow) and those to be demolished (in orange). The buildings to be demolished were more modern cart sheds. The new build elements would maintain the courtyard feel and be in a barnyard style to maintain the character of the site, whilst being smaller in scale than the original buildings to make clear that they were new additions.
There would be minimal alterations to the fabric of the listed buildings and their existing appearance would be maintained.
No affordable housing element or financial contributions would be required as the scheme was marginal in terms of viability, particularly in relation to the conversion of the Grade I listed buildings and having to gain Scheduled Monument Consent. This had been confirmed by the District Valuer.
The principle issues to be considered were:
- Heritage impact
- Alternative uses
- Impact on the locality
Each of these matters was explained in detail and important parts of the written report were emphasised. Particular reference was made to an alternative proposal made by the Thetford Society. Members had received e-mail representation from this Society and paper copies of their proposal had been tabled at the start of the meeting.
In conclusion the officer advised that the application scheme was a good one; it had been designed to minimise the impact of potential overlooking of adjacent properties; it performed well in both national and local policy terms; the conversion scheme was the result of long negotiations and respected the historic nature of the buildings; and considerable regard had been given to alternative uses, but it was not felt that there was another proposal at a stage to be seriously considered. The application was therefore recommended for approval subject to conditions and referral to the Secretary of State.
Mr Chambers, Town Clerk, added to the comments already sent from the Town Council. He said that they supported the proposals put forward by the Thetford Society and hoped that the Committee would at least defer the application to give time for the Society to meet with English Heritage. He acknowledged that time was needed to raise the money but thought that if the Council acquired the site under Compulsory Purchase powers, money might be available in the future for charitable or community ownership. He said that the protection of historic buildings was a key issue in the Thetford Area Action Plan and he was concerned that no repair notice had been issued.
Mr Wilson, objector, felt that the plans ignored the importance of the setting and group value of the buildings. The Thetford Society wanted to see them re-united with the Priory which would boost tourism. He noted that many of the Listed Building Societies were against the residential development. If the Council purchased the site funds could be sought from the Societies, the Town Council and other sources. He concluded by saying these were the only surviving inner-precinct monastic barns in the country and asked the Committee to reject the residential scheme and support the alternative proposal.
The Council’s Historic Buildings Officer clarified the age of the buildings and said that dendrochronology testing had revised the probable age of parts of the buildings to 15th, 16th and 17th century, not the 13th and 14th century as previously reported. He pointed out that they had undergone significant changes during their lifetime. Important elements, such as their timber framing, were now encased in masonry and could not be uncovered. All the remaining interest was above wallplate level, which made display difficult and access problematic. He considered that the proposed conversions would be completely reversible without detriment to the fabric of the buildings. He had worked with English Heritage to carry out a feasibility study for the re-use of the buildings some years previously and this had not proved viable, he considered that nothing had changed in the meantime.
A local Member questioned the need for economic viability. He said this should not be the most important factor in considering future uses for the buildings. Officers had written asking for alternative schemes and the Thetford Society had provided a detailed alternative which had been dismissed. He argued that the residential development proposal was not viable either as they could not afford to pay the usual financial contributions or provide affordable housing.
The Solicitor confirmed that the alternative proposal was a material planning consideration and said it was up to the Committee to decide how much weight to attach to it, depending upon how deliverable they considered it to be.
The Historic Buildings Officer said the scheme was designed not to impact on the special interest of the buildings so that if funding became available in the future the conversion could be undone. In the meantime the buildings would be preserved.
The Principal Planning Officer wished to clarify that the officers were not against the Thetford Society proposal. The uses would not be unacceptable in planning terms. However, there was no application for that proposal. There was however an application for residential conversion which had to be decided.
Another Member felt that deliverability was the key issue. He was surprised that there had not been one application since 1992 by any of the interested parties.
Other Members discussed the possibility of permission being granted but no work being carried out because the scheme was not viable. They were concerned that the buildings might still fall into disrepair and asked what powers the Council had.
The Development Services Manager assured them that conditions were proposed to phase the development and to ensure that works to the listed buildings were carried out. He said there was nothing to stop the Thetford Society from making an application in the meantime. Due to the current financial climate works might not commence at once, which would give time for negotiations. In the meantime the buildings would be monitored.
The Solicitor confirmed that there were powers available to the Council under the Listed Buildings Act which included provisions for action if the buildings should deteriorate.
The Council’s Historic Buildings Champion said this was a difficult decision. It might not be what he would want for the site ‘in an ideal world’ but in that world development would not have been allowed all around the Priory. As it was, he felt this was the best scheme for now although there might be an opportunity for change in the future. He was keen that something should be done to protect the historic buildings and urged the Committee to approve the application.
Another Member agreed, he said he had sympathy with the Thetford Society and their supporters, but their proposal was not an application.
The Chairman said that if the application was approved it would just be another step in the evolution of the buildings and would not stop future applications being submitted.
(1) to approve the planning application, as recommended; and
(2) to grant Listed Building consent, as recommended, subject to referral to the Secretary of State.