The existing building – on the corner of Mount Street and Garden Street – has been unoccupied for more than a decade and has been vandalised and used by squatters, a meeting of Preston City Council’s planning committee heard.
Members unanimously approved the 47-dwelling development, which will rise between four and seven stories high and include a communal garden roof terrace.
However, almost 50 locals objected to the scheme, laying out a litany of concerns – including its impact on the heritage of the area and neighbouring properties.
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Steven Harrison told the committee that the proposal put at risk views that had existed for two centuries.
“Close to the [existing] gym is a 200-year-old stone wall – it’s the abutment to the tramway that crossed above the road in [the early nineteenth century]. Horse-drawn trams carried coal from Wigan to Preston’s first mills.
“Anyone walking from the station in 1838 would have looked along the same narrow road you see today and seen the same stone abutment and clear view of the rear of the large houses on Winckley Square,” Mr. Harrison explained.
Another nearby resident said that the copper and aluminium-topped block would be “a great addition to Preston city centre living – but it’s on the wrong plot”, warning that it would blot out the already minimal light available to homes on Mount Street.
However, Mohammed Afaq, managing director of 1618 Architects – the agent for the applicant Northern Estates Limited – said that the scheme had evolved over the course of the past 18 months. The number of apartments has been cut from the 65 proposed initially – and the maximum height of the building dropped from nine stories to seven.
“We’ve worked very closely with the planning department and…addressed, in the main, all of the concerns raised in relation to heritage, conservation and design,” Mr. Afaq said.
Principal planning officer James Mercer said the redesigned scheme ensured that the properties fronting Winckley Square “retain their dominance within the conservation area”, because the proposed new block will now sit below their highest point.
Papers presented to the committee state that the impact on Mount Street houses will be lessened by the ‘stepped’ nature of the block, with the height increasing as it moves closer to Winckley Square.
The development will not have to include the usual quota of ‘affordable’ housing, after an independent assessment concluded that the scheme was already below the required viability level.
Committee member Neil Darby said he was concerned that the authority was, in this and other applications, “in danger of creating an awful lot of apartments within the city centre that are going to be inaccessible for many [Preston] residents”.
However, head of development management and building control, Natalie Beardsworth, suggested that, in this case, the council needed to be careful what it wished for.
“If this building were to be taller, then affordable housing could be provided, but [we] don’t want this building to be taller, because it would have a harmful and negative impact on heritage assets,” she warned.
Concerns were also raised about the presence of a privately-owned culvert beneath the plot – and the potential for it to be damaged during development. However, the meeting heard that a condition will be imposed requiring submission of a method statement detailing protection measures to be taken during construction works.
City centre ward councillor Carol Henshaw told the committee that she did not believe such a stipulation was sufficient – and also said that some of the residents in her area wanted to convey their “strong sense of marginalisation and bitter disappointment about the way this planning process has been managed – and the extent to which their voices have been silenced”.
She questioned why amendments made to the proposal within the last month had not been subject to further consultation with residents – and there was no notification of the changes until the end of June.
“It seems that, suddenly, from 10th June to 26th June, this application is not only ready to submit, but is recommended for approval,” Cllr Henshaw said.
The meeting heard that the council had carried out a statutory consultation back in May 2019 and a further round of publicity which it was not obliged to conduct, following a major amendment to the proposal in November of that year.
James Mercer said that public engagement was not required every time an amendment was made to a scheme – and, once a proposal was deemed acceptable, it had to be brought to committee for consideration as quickly as possible.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service after the decision was made, Mohammed Afaq said that the project had been a long time coming to fruition and that he and the applicant were now looking forward to “getting on site and getting on with it”.
It is understood that demolition work could begin as soon as next month, with construction starting by October.