'Prison block' flats plan U-turn sparks 'dishonesty and bad optics' concerns as council owns part of development site

The go-ahead to build two “horrendous prisonlike” blocks of flats in Cheltenham has sparked concerns over “lack of honesty and bad optics” as the plans “were already rejected in March”. Lane Britton and Jenkins' proposals to demolish the former J R Laboratories Ltd site in Lower High Street to make way for 18 apartments was approved last week.

However, the decision by Cheltenham Borough Council to reconsider the scheme after councillors thought they had voted it down in March has caused serious concerns. The planning committee had voted by six to five previously not to grant planning permission.

Nearby residents and ward councillors are concerned over how the “car less” scheme which has no parking spaces on site would make parking problems worse in nearby streets. Councillors were also concerned about how it looked for the council to reconsider the plans which they stand to gain from financially as they own a part of the site.

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However, the planning committee was told by officers that the decision would need to be revisited. They said that, while councillors voted not to approve the proposals, no formal resolution was made to refuse planning permission.

Adam Gregory, whose mother lives at the nearby Honeybourne Gate, spoke at the planning committee meeting on May 30. He said it looked like the council was having “a second bite of the cherry, possibly because [the previous decision] went against the recommendation.

“The optics of this are not good,” he said. “A vote was taken at the March meeting and the officer’s recommendation was not accepted.

“Bringing it back for further debate does not look or feel honest” He raised concerns about the loss of amenity they would be faced with a “prisonlike four storey wall a matter of feet away will be significant.”

James Griffin, the agent on behalf of the applicant, spoke in favour of the scheme. He said there were no justifiable grounds for refusal.

“This application involves the redevelopment of a tired and redundant brownfield site in the centre of town in a location actively promoted for growth by this council,” he said. The government and this council supports the need to meet the identified housing needs of the joint core strategy area through redevelopment of brownfield land in sustainable locations.

“In this regard, we could not score more highly in policy terms.” Ward Councillor David Willingham (LD, St Peter’s) called on the committee to reject the scheme for a second time.

“This was refused by six votes to five at the March committee,” he said. “Since nothing has changed, it would be undemocratic to do anything other than refuse it and correctly vote on the refusal reasons.

“If you do not reflect the outcome of that committee, ask yourselves, what other democratic processes would you choose to ignore? This development provides no affordable housing but no viability report has been published.

“These poor optics are exacerbated because the council has a pecuniary interest as a landowner.”

He said the design of the site was blasted as “horrendous and looking like a prison block”. “The residents of Honeybourne Gate, who will have to look out at this monstrosity, are older.

“Many residents have mobility issues or disabilities so they spend more time in their homes.” He also raised concerns that taxpayers would have to gift £15,000 to the developer for a traffic regulation order (TRO) to exclude the site from the parking zone.

“I don’t know about you, but I did not get into local politics to put £15,000 of profit into a developers pocket by taking it out of the publicly funded and already overcommitted highways budgets. To fail to condition that the TRO must be changed before the development commences would be an insult to the taxpayers of Gloucestershire.”

Councillor David Willingham (LD, St Peter’s) called on the committee to reject the scheme for a second time
Lane Britton and Jenkins’s proposals to demolish the former J R Laboratories Ltd site in Lower High Street to make way for two blocks of flats were rejected in March

His ward colleague Victoria Atherstone (LD, St Peter’s) also spoke against the scheme and dreads the parking chaos it will cause given the lack of spaces on site. She said it was extremely frustrating given the committee had already refused the application in March.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the developer is not providing any affordable housing” she said. “The fact there is no parking provision and inadequate availability of street parking in nearby streets will certainly give rise to road safety [concerns].”

During the debate, Councillors Frank Allen (LD, Swindon Village) and Simon Wheeler (LD, Hesters Way) echoed concerns over highways and the lack of parking at the site. Concerns were raised over delivery vans and bin lorries having to stop illegally on double yellow lines while visiting the site.

And Glenn Andrews (LD, Lansdown) raised concerns over the lack of affordable housing planned there. But while Cllr Paul Baker (LD, Charlton Park) and Tony Oliver (LD, Warden Hill) said it was a difficult proposal to consider, they said there were no real reasons for refusal.

The committee voted to grant planning permission by five votes to three.