(Councillors McCullough and Whyte, having declared an interest in the item, left the meeting for the duration of the item and did not participate in the vote)
The Principal Planning officer provided the Members with the details of the retrospective application. She reminded the Members that the full application was previously considered by the Planning Committee on 15th December, 2020. The Members were advised that the key issues were the impact on the setting of nearby Listed Buildings and the character and appearance of the Conservation Area. She outlined that both Historic Environment Division (HED) and the Council’s Conservation Officer had expressed concerns and that the application was recommended for refusal. At that meeting, the Committee had deferred the application to allow for further discussion of alternative options for the plant/plant screen.
She explained that several meetings had been held between the applicant/agent, architects, HED, the Conservation Officer and the Planning Officers, and that the overall design of the proposal had evolved from the initial proposal, with all viable options for the plant having been considered. The Members were advised that discussions had taken place to achieve a proposal which would serve the purpose required for the applicant and the tenants of the building, while minimising any potential impact on the setting of nearby listed buildings and the Belfast City Centre Conservation Area.
The amendments to the original proposal included the following changes to the right-hand side of the pediment (of the Listed Scottish Provident building facing Donegall Square West):
· the 3.1m high aluminium screen had been removed;
· the Air Handling Unit (AHU) had been lowered and moved 1.5m away from Donegall Sq East, closer to the internal courtyard;
· the high level (upper) duct from the AHU had been removed and repositioned lower at
· roof level, reducing the overall height; and
· the ducts had been moved away from Donegall Sq East, closer to the courtyard.
The following change had also been included to the left-hand side of the pediment:
· the high level (upper) duct from the second AHU, adjacent to Wellington Street, had been removed and repositioned and now ran behind the AHU rather than in front.
The Principal Planning Officer reported that HED had been heavily involved in discussions with the agent and had played a major part in informing the amendments. She explained that HED’s main concern was the impact of the proposals on the setting of the Listed Scottish Provident Building and that HED had since advised that they were content with the proposals to remove the intrusive screen to the rooftop and also the proposed relocation of ductwork and a moveable / collapsible edge protection system. The Members were advised that HED’s final response had indicated that the proposal to remove the upper duct of the plant located to the left hand side of the Scottish Provident Building pediment was also welcomed.
The Members were advised that the agent had provided additional information to HED including an image and CGI showing the mitigated impact of the removal of the upper duct on the Scottish Provident Building. HED had confirmed that they accepted that the removal of the upper duct would reduce the visual clutter of the roofscape of the application site, lessening the visual impact of the new roof on the backdrop of the Scottish Provident Building. She reported that, following on-site discussions with the agent, HED had noted that the relocation of the AHU plant could not be accommodated due to the complexities of the duct sizes, layout and existing service risers within the building. In conclusion, HED recognised that the overall impact of the plant had been substantially softened and that the proposal had been greatly improved. HED clarified that extensive options had been explored and exhausted and that the current application illustrated the best realistic option considering the retrospective nature of the application.
The Conservation Officer had also welcomed that the plant/screen had been reduced to limit the impact on the historic buildings roof line, and that the plant/screen to the right hand side of the pediment had been greatly reduced to the point where it would be barely visible when viewed from within the grounds to the front of the City Hall and Donegal Square East. However, the Conservation Officer advised that the plant to the left hand side of the pediment remained prominently visible and would in their opinion, negatively impact on the setting of the Scottish Provident Building when viewed from Donegall Square East and within the grounds to the front of the City Hall. The Conservation Officer concluded that there would be an unavoidable negative impact, no matter how minimal as a result of the proposals but that it was recognised that the proposal had evolved positively from what existed and that all viable options had been explored to mitigate against the visual impact of the plant (including the AHU). The Conservation Officer noted that justification had been provided for the AHU remaining in its current location and appreciated the efforts made in producing a solution to what would be considered as a betterment to what currently existed.
The Principal Planning officer reported that there was little room to move the plant in a practical or operational sense and an added complication was that a crane could not now reach the unit and that it would have to be manually jacked and skidded over the roof, which provided a significant health and safety risk, and such works would take 4-5 weeks to complete. It was reported that that part of the building would need to be closed down to facilitate the works.
She outlined that, in considering all the information, together with the updated responses from both HED and the Conservation officer, Planning officers considered the proposal, on balance, to be acceptable. She explained that it represented a significant improvement to what currently existed on the roof top of the building.
The Members were advised that, having regard to the advice from HED, whilst it was considered that the proposal was not fully compliant with Policy BH11 of PPS 6, it was considered that all practicable options had been considered and that the setting of the Listed Scottish Provident building would not be unacceptably harmed or compromised.
Whilst the proposal would fail to preserve or enhance the character or appearance of the Conservation Area, contrary to Policy BH12, she explained that the impact would not be significant. The Members were advised that the policy tests must be considered in the round, having regard to the economic considerations associated with the occupation of the office building for which the proposed plant would serve and the practicalities of servicing this building. In that context, the proposal was also considered acceptable having regard to Section 104 of the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.
She outlined that the officers’ recommendation to approve the application included a time bound condition requiring the applicant to complete the works in accordance with the approved plans within six months of the date of the permission.
The Chairperson welcomed Mr. M. Gordon, agent, to the meeting. He advised the Committee Members that he wished to put on record his thanks to the Planning officers and to Ms. N. Donnelly, HED, for the opportunity to work through the issues with them. He added that, if approved today, the applicant intended to undertake the works almost immediately.
A Member queried why the original planning permission had not been adhered to and why it had been breached. Mr. Gordon explained that the plant design had only been finalised after the planning permission was granted. PwC, as the occupier, required very high performance requirements for a building which would be operational 24/7, and unfortunately they were constrained by the limited space available on the roof and there were certain areas where the plant had to be located. He advised that he was aware that the situation was not satisfactory and that lesson had been learned throughout the process. He advised the Members that the applicant had attempted to minimise the negative impacts as much as possible.
In response to a Member’s question in respect of the retrospective application, Ms. Donnelly, HED, advised that they looked at retrospective applications with the knowledge that they had already been built. She outlined that, in HED's view, they would unlikely be able to sustain an objection to the proposal in the event of an appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission. Whilst the proposal did not quite comply with policy, they were mindful that the agent had taken steps to address the screen and the upper duct. She explained that their remaining concerns were around the Air Handling Unit and that it was disappointing that the plant top was built prior to their input but that HED recognised that the overall impact of the plant had been substantially softened and that the proposal had been greatly improved.
Accordingly, the Chairperson put the officer’s recommendation, that, in accordance with the Council decision of 4th May 2021, the Chief Executive would exercise her delegated authority to approve the application, subject to conditions, including a time bound condition to remedy the current situation on site and that she would finalise the conditions. On a vote, eight Members voted for the proposal and four against and it was declared carried.