Newcastle Borough Council has been ordered to pay costs to a private school after its decision to block plans for a new sports hall was overturned.
The authority rejected Newcastle-under-Lyme School’s application to improve its sports facilities on the grounds the new building would be ‘overbearing’ and detrimental to the nearby Stubbs Walk Conservation Area. Stubbs Walk, which is more than 200 years old, is believed to be the oldest public park in the country.
After school governers appealed against the decision, the planning inspector ruled in their favour – and ordered the authority to pay the costs of the appeal.
Planning inspector George Baird said: “The proposed building is, unashamedly, of contemporary design and its scale, height and massing has been determined by its proposed function as a multi-use sports hall. The building is tall and key views would be obtained from the pathways that run along the western and eastern edges of the park and from its southern entrance and the private laneway that runs along the southern boundary of the school.
“The appellants have carefully selected the palette of finishing materials to complement this CA (conservation area), which would include facing brick at low level, vertical timber boarding on the park elevation and grey metal cladding for the remaining walls and roof. The existing sports hall would be re-clad in similar grey cladding to create a coherent group of buildings in this southern corner.
“As such I consider there would be no impact on the architectural or historic significance of this CA.”
Newcastle-under-Lyme School, which charges up to £4,183 per term, is aiming to improve facilities for pupils, the wider community and visiting teams with the new sports centre. It has been given £3 million from the Denise Coates Foundation to pay for the sports hall
The Mount Pleasant school’s sports facilities are used by Newcastle Town Netball Club and the senior first team is aiming to play in the national Premiership. But the school’s current facilities are not suitable for the higher level and the redevelopment is essential to enable the club to develop.
Neighbouring residents have said however that the building will block out sunlight for nearby homes during the early morning. There are also concerns that existing parking and traffic issues will get worse.
More than 140 residents objected to the plan and there was also a petition against the loss of nine trees and the possible impact on Stubbs Walk Park.
David Lawrence, spokesman for Friends of Stubbs Walk Conservation Area, said: “Local people I have talked to are very disappointed that their success in persuading their local councillors to vote down the application has come to nothing. There is a strong feeling that money and influence of an elite has shown the democratic process is merely a wrapper that can be discarded.
“The officials in the council’s planning and legal departments failed to persuade elected councillors that their choice to refuse the application would fail. In hindsight the planning officer’s report recommending approval of the scheme showed their professionalism, knowing that successful grounds for refusal had not been met.
“The wish of elected councillors to support local residents is understandable. However if the council’s planning officers and legal advisers could not prepare water-tight grounds for refusal, ordinary residents never had any realistic hope of saving the sunrise over Stubbs Walk’s park.
“It is a rude awakening to find the planning system cannot protect the wishes of local residents and elected councillors. My disappointment is balanced by making very many other people happy.”
Martin Kirkham, another objector, said concerns remained about the effect of the new development on the conservation area.
He added: “There are no more options for us to explore and there’s not a lot we can do – it’s just the way of the world. It was always a losing battle but we fought fair and we fought hard.”
“We still think it’s wrong and it is very disappointing.”
A council report on the planning inspector’s decision says officers and members ‘need to learn from this decision’.
The report states: “The inspector acknowledged that the members of the planning committee do not have to accept the professional advice and recommendation of their officers and that the effect of a proposal on the character or appearance of a conservation area is a material consideration. Therefore, concluding that the proposal would have an unacceptable effect is not, on its own, unreasonable behaviour.
“A local planning authority (LPA) is at risk of an award of costs by refusing planning permission when it clearly fails to have regard to Government policy. Where potential harm to designated heritage assets is identified, it needs to be categorised as either ‘less than substantial harm’ or ‘substantial harm’.
“There is nothing in the LPA’s response to the appellants’ application for costs other than reporting that the members had all the information necessary to assess the impact of the proposal and undertake a proper planning balance. Accordingly, the inspector concluded that unreasonable behaviour resulting in unnecessary or wasted expense, as described in the Planning Practice Guidance, has been demonstrated and that a full award of costs is justified.”
The school has now been invited to submit the details of its costs to the council so the amount can be agreed.