Altered plans for retirement flats on former council office site in Sidmouth are rejected

A marathon debate to thrash out altered plans to build a major Sidmouth retirement development on the former site of the district council offices has ended in rejection.

Revised plans for a major retirement living scheme have been rejected by East Devon planners after a lengthy debate which united residents and Councillors united in opposition, writes local democracy reporter Bradley Gerrard.

McCarthy & Stone recently put a tweaked version of its scheme in front of the district council’s planning committee, but objectors bemoaned the small number of changes made.

The size, scale and number of properties remained the same, residents claimed, and while some balconies had been removed from one side of the building in an effort to reduce fears of overlooking, a large number were still included.

The applicant’s first planning application for the former council headquarters which suffered a fire in March last year, was refused in February, and it has lodged an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate.

In assessing the revised application, residents reiterated concerns including about overlooking into nearby Knowle Gardens and Knowle Park, questioned the need for more retirement accommodation in the town, and raised fears about whether the sewage system could cope with the extra demand.

Kelvin Dent, a resident and member of Friends of the Knowle, which helps look after the area’s gardens and park, said the scale, mass and design of the scheme had “not materially changed”.

“The only change is the removal of some balconies on the west elevation and inclusion of more on the south,” he said.

“Those have made things worse, and if the committee wishes to be consistent, then I suggest the present application should be refused.”

The planning committee turned down the scheme previously because it “failed to reflect the local distinctiveness and is not compatible with the character of the site… and so will adversely affect the townscape and local landscape of Sidmouth”.

It also said the large windows and balconies on one block would “result in an unacceptable level of overlooking and overbearing impact on neighbouring properties”.

Resident Barry Kerwin felt the proposal to use a mainly surface water drainage scheme would create a “serious risk of flooding”, especially during heavy rain when local sewers were struggling to cope.

“The sewer has been cleaned and surveyed but the overflow still occurs, and if this is added, flooding is likely,” he said.

Michael Temple felt the increase in balconies on the south side of one of the buildings, the 60 windows and a central viewing platform on top of the four apartments included in the scheme, would “all look down on our secluded public gardens”.

He added it was “out of character with the gardens, the conservation area and the neighbourhood”, while fellow resident Stephen Jones bemoaned the “poor design”.

“It will not enhance the entrance to Sidmouth,” Mr Jones said.

“Stow-on-the-Wold had a great McCarthy and Stone development, although Exmouth’s is not a good example,” he noted.

“This seems to be a situation where it is an off-the-peg design, but this site must be one of the most beautiful, and any architect worth their salt would be excited by the challenge to create something for it.”

The agent, David Williams, defended the scheme, saying that for a second time, officers were recommending approval.

“This is an allocated brownfield site within the settlement boundary and the principle of substantial older person accommodation is established with a previous appeal decision,” he said.

“During the pre-application and application process, we have had detailed discussions with the council, local residents and stakeholders for nearly three years, and accordingly this scheme has evolved and been fine-tuned to provide the optimum and sustainable level of development.

He claimed the inclusion of extra care elements helped Sidmouth meet its need for housing and job creation, and that the care provision for over-sixties and over-seventies would bring “social and economic benefits via a reduction in demand on the public sector and health care services”.

McCarthy & Stone’s scheme includes 33 retirement apartments for the over-sixties and 53 extra care/assisted living homes for the over-seventies.

Also included is a care home building with staff and resident facilities and two pairs of semi-detached properties and three townhouses.

This is lower than the 113-apartment assisted living community previously planned by PegasusLife, which secured permission for its scheme after appealing East Devon’s refusal, but then never went ahead.

But Councillors firmly opposed the latest scheme, using the same reasons for refusing it as earlier in the year.

Councillors raised further concerns, including that the scheme “significantly increases the average density of residential development in an existing urban area”, meaning it would contravene part of the National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF.

“And the NPPF says that if a scheme is not well designed it should be refused where it neglects to reflect the local design policies and government guidance on design,” Cllr Colin Brown (Conservative, Dunkeswell and Otterhead) said.

Cllr Ian Barlow (Independent, Sidmouth Town) was concerned that local NHS services couldn’t cope with a large addition of homes for elderly people, and questioned whether the town should be trying to encourage new developments for younger residents as Sidmouth’s elderly population grew.

Cllr Matt Hall (Liberal Democrat, Exmouth Withycombe Raleigh) said while the principle of development on the site was accepted, it was now about finding the “right development”.

He continued: “I think the original design and layout was far better, and I think it had far less things to be critical of.

“But I think this is overdevelopment of the site and is not in keeping with the existing urban grain, and no offence to the architect, but this is an off-the-peg design, and I don’t think it fits in or acknowledges the local character or creates something distinctive.”

Cllr Barlow proposed the motion to reject the scheme, with a debated ensuing to agree the right wording, content and reasoning.

Eventually, the Councillors agreed to reject the scheme, with one abstention from planning committee chair Olly Davey.

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