Sam Davies

Asking the right questions

Some (qualified) good news this week. On Tuesday, the City Council’s Planning Committee voted to reject the application to build three new flats on the top of the Edeva Court building (the block behind the Queen Edith pub).

As I mentioned a couple of weeks’ ago, the application proposed that an entire new floor should be built literally and metaphorically ‘over the heads’ of the 12 existing leaseholders, who unanimously objected to this proposal. Moreover, this would have been despite the fact that the leaseholders own around 80% of the value and square footage of the property, and that the building was optimised for the plot when originally constructed only 10 years ago. The application had been recommended for approval by the council’s own planning officers.

You can see the debate, including my contribution, here. (Unfortunately, technical issues meant that the officer’s brief presentation was not fully captured).

I was once again impressed by the attention to detail paid by members of the committee and the rigour with which they interrogated the plans. Three points stood out for me.

1. Some good fortune

As noted by the planning lawyer representing the existing residents, the application was only up for discussion at Committee because Wulfstan Way is within the Air Safeguarding Zone of Cambridge airport (see Policy 37 of the 2018 Local Plan). Otherwise it would have been approved under national ‘Permitted Development rights’, and there would have been no process for objecting to it. I still find this an incredible thought.

2. Seeing through the language

There is much potential for perceptions to be swayed by use of misleading language. For example, one of the councillors’ criticisms of the quality of the design was that obscured glass would have to be used in a bedroom to minimise overlooking of a neighbouring property. When they asked the planning officer about this, she referred to it as ‘spare room’, a description which suggests that it would not be regularly used.

I found this quite confusing, as the room is actually marked on the plans as a bedroom and the officer obviously has absolutely no way of knowing how that room would be used by future occupants. In fact, given housing prices, it seems highly unlikely to be left as a ‘spare room’. But that description of it could well have subconsciously persuaded councillors that the obscured glass was not really an issue. Fortunately that was not the case in this instance.

3. The need for local knowledge

Specific local knowledge is critical in interrogating applicants’ assertions. Councillors asked about parking arrangements, as only one new space was proposed for all three flats. In response, they were told that:

  • a parking survey had shown there were on-street spaces available in the vicinity
  • the survey had been undertaken in May 2021, so was an up-to-date indicator of parking demand
  • it had been carried out during a period when “people would have been working from home” suggesting that demand for spaces would have been at its highest then.

That might be true of some locations, but it’s absolutely not true of Wulfstan Way, which in May 2021 would have seen massively reduced parking from visitors to the nearby Queen Edith’s Medical Practice and also Addenbrooke’s hospital.

Given that I’ve previously helped elderly and disabled residents in the City Council bungalows opposite Edeva Court explain to Housing Officers how parking stress means their carers have trouble visiting them, the impression presented at Planning Committee seemed significantly at odds with local reality.

Dangers Ahead

As we moved towards the summing up, councillors were clear that they had many reservations about the quality of the scheme, the cumulative impact of which left them feeling that this was a poor-quality application, which had cut too many corners in too many areas. However, that cumulative impact is not in itself sufficient to refuse an application. Councillors then had to go through the process of identifying which of the many shortcomings was individually bad enough to fail the policy test before they could finally vote to reject.

And it’s important to note that although this application was refused, the debate was all about the detail of the plans, rather than the principle of building an extra floor or floors. Plus of course the applicant can now decide to appeal, or to resubmit a slightly revised application.

Through the whole Edeva Court process I have struggled to understand how this element of the Permitted Development regime could have been conceived by national government, when it leaves the leaseholders in such a precarious situation. And given how much of the housing built in Cambridge over the last couple of decades is in the form of apartment blocks (below), the risk of a spate of further such applications in the years ahead seems very real.

Source: Cambridgeshire Insight 

Sam Davies

7 comments

  • Some great argument. And perhaps with this level of poor design there may not be the strength in the footings to take another floor and leave a big enough margins of safety. Never mind the effect of new build vibration in the walls and structure of the flat beneath. And one other point, since this is an ‘extension’ to the original building, wouldn’t it be subject to vat, normally only available to new builds?

  • Asking very pertinent questions, as ever, thank you Sam!

    Am I missing something, or did the house formerly at 305 Hills Road not have any foundations whatsoever? The empty lot seems devoid of any trace of footings, but maybe it was just very thoroughly cleared.

  • Amazing case work undertaken by our independent councillor for Queen Edith’s. Sure your write up does not demonstrate the months, days, and hours of work you and others have given to this. Must have been such a stressful time for the homeowners. In London this type of development is taking hold “Data has shown Cambridge recorded the ninth highest house price inflation across England and Wales’s towns and cities December 2022” so demand to develop existing properties will only increase.
    Thank you Sam

  • The behaviour and attitude of the planning officers seems unbelievable. Except when considered alongside just about every other planning approval in our increasingly overcrowded (overstuffed!) city.
    Tge councillors involved here really do deserve medals.

  • Regarding parking, surely there’s at least a moral need to provide adequate parking space on site for new residents to avoid their parking on street. I believe roads are for vehicle movement, not storage.

  • Once again, well done, Sam, for highlighting some of the absurdities and anomalies in our planning system and the manipulative language of some developers.

    However, how we change this remains a problem.

  • Sam I not sure, but there seems some connection if the Hills Rd properties are shared ownerships. But you may not have come across the encouraging piece below which, hopefully, has implications for people at Warburton House. Peter Durrant.

    An inquiry into shared ownership 2022
    In January 2023, the APPG on Housing and Care for Older People published an inquiry into: ‘Making retirement living affordable: the role of shared ownership housing’.

    The demand for older people’s housing already vastly outstrips supply and the gap is widening across all regions. There is a particular and growing concern around less affluent older homeowners – the ‘squeezed middle’ – who can’t afford to downsize or don’t qualify for rented sheltered housing. The inquiry examined whether shared ownership is a viable option for this group, and if so, what changes are needed to increase affordable provision and make shared ownership a suitable, and popular option for later life?

    Key issues addressed by the inquiry include:

    spelling out what shared ownership is and ensuring potential purchasers understand the complexities; possibly suggesting simplified and standardised arrangements
    understanding preferences of future occupiers as between shared ownership and renting (to determine the shape of future funding programmes)
    considering the leasehold offer, ensuring transparency and fairness in respect of service charges, responsibilities for repairs and sinking funds; (perhaps considering alternatives to current practices)
    investigating the flexible tenure model that enables shared owners not only to increase their share of ownership but to sell shares back to the provider, to raise cash for care costs (or grandchildren’s needs, etc.)
    reviewing the resale process, in particular the problem of finding purchasers for specialist housing through standard estate agents
    The inquiry was supported by a panel of six independent members:

    Abigail Davies (Director, Housing Consultancy, Savills)
    Gary Day (Director Land, Design & Planning, Churchill Retirement Living)
    John Galvin (CEO, Elderly Accommodation Counsel)
    Anna Kear (CEO, Tonic Housing)
    Bruce Moore (Chief Executive, Housing 21)
    Jeremy Porteus (CEO, Housing LIN)
    The Inquiry was launched in December 2021 and the first meeting was in February 2022. You can read reports of those meetings.

    The inquiry forms part of the Housing Our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI).

    Housing 21 sponsored the Inquiry and supported the APPG’s inquiry secretariat, which is provided by the Smith Institute.

    The co-chairs of the APPG are Lord Best and Peter Aldous MP. The vice chairs of the APPG are Baronesses Kay Andrews, Liz Barker, Ruth Cadbury MP and the late Sally Greengross.

    The purpose of the APPG is to “promote discussion and set the agenda for developing better, more joined up housing and care for older people, promising greater choices in later life”.

    For more information about the APPG on Housing and Care for Older People, or to be added to the mailing list for future meetings, please contact Oliver Wheeler, Secretariat for the APPG on Housing and Care for Older People, by calling 020 7219 6799 or by sending an email.

    Read the APPG report