The Principal Planning officer presented the details of the application to the Committee.
She reminded the Committee that, at its meeting on 21st July, it had agreed to defer the application for a site visit to allow the Members to acquaint themselves with the location and the proposal at first hand. She advised that the site visit had taken place on Wednesday, 12th August.
The Members were advised of the key issues which were considered during the assessment of the proposed development, including the impact on open space, the layout, parking and access, impact on residential amenity, and height, scale and design.
The Principal Planning officer explained that, under the adopted Belfast Urban Area Plan (BUAP) 2001 the site was zoned for open space and recreation. The 2004 version of Draft Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (dBMAP) had also designated the site as lands reserved for open space and recreation. She explained that, at the public inquiry to draft BMAP 2004 the PAC had recommended that the site be re-designated as housing land, which the former Department of the Environment (DoE) carried through to the 2015 version of Draft Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015 which was unlawfully adopted and subsequently quashed. The Committee was reminded that, therefore, there was a conflict between the statutory adopted BUAP 2001 and the draft BMAP 2015 version.
She explained that significant weight was afforded to the adopted BUAP 2001 and its designation as open space and the draft BMAP 2004 version which also designated the site as existing open space. The 2015 version remained a material consideration however it did not carry greater weight than the existing adopted plan, the BUAP 2001, despite its vintage.
The Committee was advised that, whilst a previous planning application had been granted in 1996 for a residential use at the location, it was a decision of the previous Authority, the DoE, which was a Central Government decision by which the Council was not bound and was also within a different policy context, pre the introduction of PPS 8 – Open Space and Recreation.
The Principal Planning officer explained that the applicant was afforded the opportunity to submit a PPS 8 statement to address policy OS1 but it was not submitted, and the statement that had been submitted did not address the policy tests of OS 1 and focused on a reliance on the status of the draft BMAP 2015 version instead. She outlined that the applicant had failed to address the policy context and therefore the proposed land use for housing was considered unacceptable in principle.
She advised the Committee that the proposed design, was acceptable but that the scheme resulted in overdevelopment, as the number of units created a layout dominated by parking, minimal or no front gardens, with rear gardens backing onto the front access laneway resulting in a safety and surveillance concern at a sensitive interface. The Members were advised that the scheme was not reflective of the character of the area and failed to provide a quality residential environment and was considered to be contrary to policies QD1 of PPS 7 and LC1 of Addendum to PPS7.
The Committee was advised that, since the site visit had taken place, six objections had been received, the details of which were listed within the Late Items pack. The objections listed issues regarding a lack of neighbour notification, a history of sectarian incidents in the area, that the development might create another sectarian interface, traffic volume and that there was a lack of open space in North Belfast.
She added that Environmental Health, NIEA, the Local Development Plan Team, NI Water, Rivers Agency and DFI Roads had all been consulted and had offered no objection to the proposal, subject to conditions.
The Chairperson welcomed Mr. A. Larkin, agent, to the meeting. He advised the Committee that:
· it was entirely within its rights to set aside the open space zoning of the site in making its decision and, having visited the site, he was sure that it would agree that the land was not publicly accessible, nor did it offer any public amenity or value as open space;
· the PAC had come to the same conclusion when it assessed the site in 2009 as part of the public inquiry into draft BMAP and it was on that basis that the most recent iteration of BMAP 2014 that the site was zoned for housing;
· since 1995 there had been no attempt by the Council to acquire the site as public open space;
· the Council’s own Area Plan team had recommended that more weight be given to the housing zoning afforded to the site under BMAP 2014;
· the proposed layout did not constitute overdevelopment and that the Development Management Group, in April 2019, confirmed the proposed layout in front of the Committee was acceptable and that a change in personnel seemed to have seen a change in opinion, demonstrating how finely balanced that refusal reason was;
· the existing density in Somerdale Park was between 27-36 dwellings per hectare and the proposed density, at 30 dwellings per hectare, was well within the existing range;
· low level retaining walls were proposed to make rear garden spaces level and more usable and the assertion that they would dominate the scheme was misleading;
· due to the presence of a security turnstile and gate on the walkway, if units 11-13 were turned around to front the walkway as had been suggested, it was unreasonable to expect occupants to access the front of their dwellings via this turnstile and locked gate;
· the Council’s Physical Programmes Department had recently lodged an application to upgrade the walkway as part of the ForthMeadow Greenway shared space initiative, whereby lighting of that section of walkway was proposed and the turnstile was to be removed and replaced with a gate closer to the playing fields which would continue to be locked in the evenings; and
· guidance in paragraph 5.28 of creating places stated that, in exceptional circumstances, where rear boundaries were exposed to public areas, measures such as high quality boundary walls and landscaping were necessary to provide security and privacy and that was exactly what was proposed.
In response to a Member’s question as to why the applicant had not submitted a PPS Statement outlining the “substantial community benefits” which the development would bring in order to warrant the exception, he advised the Committee that it had to determine how much weight to give to the most recent zoning of the site. He explained that the provisions of PPS8 did not apply, as the site was not publicly accessible, nor did it offer any public amenity or value as open space, even if it was zoned as such.
Mr C. Bryson, agent, also added that the site did not comply with any of the typologies of open space listed within PPS8 Annex A, and that therefore those policies did not apply.
A further Member stated that, upon visiting the site as part of the site visit, it seemed to be a poorly maintained open space with years of overgrowth. He sought further clarification in relation to the height of the retaining walls to the rear of a number of the properties. The agent advised that they would range from between two to three feet in height. The agent responded to a further question regarding the rear facing houses, units 11-13.
The Principal Planning officer and the agent sought to provide Members with further clarification on the potential relocation of the turnstile, in response to a Member’s question.
In response to a further Member’s question regarding which part of PPS8 the officers felt was applicable to the application, the Principal Planning officer advised that any open space was not required to be maintained or be in good order and that typology vi, Natural Urban Green Spaces, applied.
The Principal Planning officer, in response to a further Member’s question, confirmed that officers had calculated that the density proposed was 32 units/hectare, compared to 23 units/hectare in Somerdale and Ingledale, which were in the immediate context.
Moved by Councillor Murphy,
Seconded by Councillor Maskey,
That the Committee agrees the application, as the loss of open space was justified, in that there would be a greater community benefit through the development of housing at the site, given the chronic housing shortage in North Belfast and that the residential amenity would not be adversely impacted as a result; that there was open space within the surrounding area, specifically the Clarendon Playing Fields; that car parking was not a good enough reason to refuse the application; and, that only three of the properties would be impacted by the retaining walls.
On a vote, five Members voted for the proposal and seven against and it was declared lost.
Accordingly, the Chairperson put the officer’s recommendation to refuse the application to the Committee, with delegated authority granted to the Director of Planning and Building Control to finalise the refusal reasons subject to no new substantive planning issues being raised by third parties.
On a vote, seven members voted for the proposal and five against and it was declared carried.