Preston skyline to be changed by 200 new apartments, which one councillor calls "ugly"
A 16-storey apartment block is set to rise up in the heart of Preston after planning permission was secured for 200 new dwellings in a city centre development to be known as The Exchange.
The building - on the site of the former job centre at Bhailok Court on Pole Street - will feature a central core of seven floors, supporting two towers either side of it. One of the attached structures will be 14-storeys high, with the other topping out 16 floors above ground.
Permission was granted over a year ago for 176 apartments on the plot, but the plans have since been amended to reduce the floor-to-ceiling height of most of the levels and allow for an extra storey to be included - without making the 49 metre-high building any taller.
Based on an assessment carried out on behalf of The Heaton Group, which is behind the scheme, Preston City Council’s planning officers acknowledge that, from certain viewpoints - particularly along London Road - the proposal will “alter the skyline”.
However, they conclude that it will not affect long-range views, adding that the tower elements will have the appearance of being standalone structures, giving an overall “slender” look to the development.
That conclusion was not shared by committee member Cllr David Borrow, who said that while the previous proposal “wasn’t brilliant”, the revised scheme “looks like something out of the Soviet Union”.
“It’s just ugly - they have obviously redesigned it to put more units in and save money, within the same mass, and it just looks the sort of building that makes Crystal House [on the Flag Market] look beautiful.
“As a committee, I think we’re going to get it in the neck in years to come if this is built, because it will look ugly in the middle of the city.
“I just think the people of Preston will not like it,” said Cllr Borrow, who abstained in the vote.
However, principal planning officer Robert Major cautioned councillors against making comparisons with the already-approved plans.
“The fact that in some members’ opinion, this is worse than the previous [proposal]… is not a justification to refuse the application - you have to judge this on its own merits.
“If members think that the design, when looking at it afresh, is unacceptable, then that's their choice - but we can’t have a reason for refusal that says: ‘It’s worse than the last one’," Mr. Major warned.
The towers will have a ‘stepped’ design, while there will be a communal roof terrace on the top floor of the seven-storey central element. At ground floor level, there will be four office units, a gym, communal lounge and outdoor, landscaped amenity space and bike storage.
The site lies within the Stoneygate area, which has recently been primed for regeneration after the city council approved a framework for the location last year. Councillors were told that there was an “aspiration for buildings of height” in that part of the city - and planning officers noted that there were other, existing tall buildings in the immediate vicinity, including the Unicentre and Guild Tower.
Cabinet member for planning Peter Moss, who also sits on the planning committee, said that the proposal chimed with Preston’s strategy to encourage city living - meaning that the lack of any car parking provision should not count against it.
“If we want to reduce car use, we need people who live close to transport hubs. This is close to the bus station and within walking distance of the railway station.
“It’s really important that we have opportunities for people to live in areas where they don't have to use a car. To keep saying, ‘We need more car parking space’ just encourages more cars,” said Cllr Moss, who also welcomed the inclusion of three-bedroomed properties in the revised scheme, on the basis that they would attract families.
However, Cllr Neil Darby noted that the proposal was just the latest to be brought before the committee for a city centre residential development that did not include an affordable housing element.
An assessment submitted on behalf of the applicant - and accepted by the city council - claimed that the usual requirement for 30 percent of properties on urban Preston developments to be classed as affordable would have rendered The Exchange scheme unviable.
Papers presented to the committee state that the estimated return on the development as it is proposed is 15 percent - meaning inclusion of affordable properties would have pushed the profit margin below the 15-20 percent deemed reasonable under national planning guidance.
Cllr Darby said: “We have got apartments here which are meeting the minimum standards in terms of size - [so] at what point do we say that if it's not viable to have affordable housing [as part of the development], then is it the wrong development in the wrong location?”
Six objections were raised to the plans, including concern from the Carey Baptist Chapel that construction work risked damaging “ornate plasterwork” within the Grade II-listed building. However, members were told that the matter did not fall under their remit and would have to be considered under separate legislation.
A “watching brief” will be kept for any items of archaeological interest that might be buried on the site, which housed a brewery in the early 1930s before being replaced by an employment exchange sometime before the end of World War Two. That building was demolished in 2019.
Committee members approved the application, with 10 votes in favour and one abstention.
In a statement issued after the meeting, a spokesperson for The Heaton Group said:
“This is our fifth residential scheme we’ll be bringing to Preston and today’s decision will allow us to transform the former Bhailok building into The Exchange and bring 200 much needed stylish and contemporary apartments to the city.
"As well as offering one, two and three bedroom luxury apartments, The Exchange will feature a large communal residents lounge, shared working space, a gym, a landscaped courtyard, roof garden and terrace for residents to enjoy, as well as retail units to the ground floor.
“Forming part of the Stoneygate Masterplan, the design of the building compliments others in the area with a modern design that features dark grey and bronze exterior to ensure The Exchange is contemporary, yet timeless. We’re proud to be investing further into the city and look forward to sharing more about our plans over the coming months.”