Controversy over conversion of Preston 'farm building that never was' into offices

An agricultural building in the Preston countryside is set to be converted into offices - in spite of never having been used for the purpose that helped secure planning permission for it in the first place.
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The premises - at Lewth Farm in Woodplumpton - unlawfully operated as a toy distribution centre after it was built seven years ago, a meeting of Preston City Council’s planning committee was told.

The authority took action to close down that facility, because it conflicted with the permission granted in November 2016 that stipulated the property's agricultural status.

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However, committee members have now given the green light for the building to be turned into five office units after being told local planning policies designed to encourage the re-use of rural buildings did not require them ever to have actually been used for agricultural purposes.

The narrow track down which the Lewth Farm site is accessed (image: Google)The narrow track down which the Lewth Farm site is accessed (image: Google)
The narrow track down which the Lewth Farm site is accessed (image: Google)

The plan for the office development - part of a wider site which has not functioned as a farm for decades - has been opposed by residents of the unadopted road that will be used to access it, off Lewth Lane.

One of them appeared at the committee meeting to tell councillors that the single-track route - which has no passing places - was already “beyond its breaking point” because of other activity at the location. That regularly resulted in vehicles having to reverse out onto the 60mph main road, it was claimed.

Preston Rural North ward councillor Sue Whittam said the proposal - under which 11 people could be employed - did not “demonstrate support for rural businesses” because the application gave no clue as to the type of companies that would be based there.

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City council planning officers had recommended the plans - by applicant Karl Ince - be approved, after Lancashire County Council highways officers raised no concerns about highway safety.

However, committee member David Borrow suggested the situation made a mockery of national legislation to support the rural economy by promoting diversification of farm businesses via the conversion of existing agricultural buildings.

He asked case officer James Mercer whether permission would have been granted for the building if it had originally been proposed as offices, but Mr. Mercer said he could not give an opinion on a “hypothetical situation” which had not been assessed.

However, he stressed that planning policies at a Central Lancashire, Preston and Woodplumpton neighbourhood level all talked about the re-use of “buildings in general” in the countryside - and did not specify the need for them to have previously been in agricultural use.

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Meanwhile, Jill Naylor, the agent for the application, said the blueprint chimed with the aim of “diversifying the rural economy and making…efficient use of existing resources”, as laid down in Preston’s local development plan.

Cllr Borrow said that as the past history of neither the site nor the applicant could not be taken into consideration - and given that County Hall’s highways department had not objected to the scheme on safety grounds - the committee had little choice but to approve the plans.

However, Cllr Stephen Thompson said other factors had to be taken into consideration and that planning policies were not "carte blanche" for someone to do whatever they wanted with disused countryside buildings.

But fellow committee member John Potter summed up the overriding sentiment in the room, stating: “I don't want to approve this, but I can't think of a legitimate reason to reject it either.”

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He also noted that residents on Lewth Lane were getting “absolutely clobbered [in] multiple ways" - because they would have to foot the bill for repairing the unadopted road if it deteriorated as a result of the additional traffic generated by the offices.

The application was approved by nine votes to one, with one abstention.

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