(Councillors McCullough and Whyte re-joined the meeting at this point)
(Councillor Hussey, having declared an interest in the item, left the meeting
for the duration of the item and did not participate in the vote)
The Planning Manager reminded the Members that the application had been due to be considered by the Planning Committee in April 2021. However, the Committee had deferred the application because Members had been unable to access all the relevant documents through the Planning Portal. The application was then scheduled to be considered by the Committee in May 2021, however, it was withdrawn from the agenda in light of further information having been received from the applicant.
The Members were advised that the application sought full planning permission for the construction of new 9 storey (37m tall) building comprising of ground floor retail space with 8 floors of Grade A office space above. The existing building had since been demolished under the terms of a previous planning permission which meant that the previous permission was extant in perpetuity. The current application followed Pre-Application Discussions with officers.
The Members were advised that the site already benefitted from an extant planning permission for the erection of a seven storey office building (Z/2011/0380/F) with retail use on the ground floor and offices above. The principle of retail and office development had already been established and was acceptable at the city centre location. The Planning Manager advised that the proposal would support jobs and contribute to the economy.
He outlined the main issues which had been considered in the assessment of the proposal, including:
· the principle of office and retail uses at that location
· the demolition of the existing building;
· the impact on the character and appearance of the area and ATC;
· the impact upon the setting of nearby listed buildings;
· the impact on amenity;
· water infrastructure and flood risk; and
· access and parking.
He provided the Members with views of the following Listed Buildings which were in proximity to the site:
· Old Town Hall (Grade B1)
· Royal Courts of Justice (Grade A)
· Nos. 161 – 163 Victoria Street and No. 2 Gloucester Street (Grade B1)
· Former Northern Bank 108 – 110 Victoria Street (Grade B2)
· Albert Clock Queen’s Square (Grade A)
He outlined that the site was located within the development limits for the city, as designated within the BUAP, dBMAP 2004 and 2015 and was within the proposed Victoria & Oxford Street Area of Townscape Character (ATC).
In terms of its relationship with neighbouring buildings, it was considered that the impacts on outlook and natural light would not be significantly greater than those arising from the extant permission.
He reported that HED had advised that the scale and design of the proposal had the potential to adversely impact on the setting of nearby listed buildings. However, officers considered that the scale and design of the building to be appropriate to its context, which included several substantial buildings in the area, and that the setting of listed buildings would not be harmed.
The Members were advised that the proposal had been assessed against the SPPS, PPS 3: Access, Movement and Parking, PPS 4: Planning and Economic Development, PPS 6: Planning, Archaeology and the Built Heritage and Addendum, Areas of Townscape Character, PPS 15 Planning and Flood Risk.
The Planning Manager reported that there were additional confidential issues to consider which would be discussed with the Committee Members later in the meeting.
He reported that objections had been received from third parties, citing issues around the excessive scale of the building, adverse impact on surrounding buildings and site access.
The Bar Library Service objected to the scale and height of proposal and the potential impacts on neighbouring buildings, both listed and non-listed buildings. They also raised concern with respect to loss of light/privacy and proposed glazing on the party boundary wall.
Similarly, the Law Society of Northern Ireland objected on heritage grounds. A report had been provided by Stelfox Conservation Consultants on behalf of the Law Society. The objection indicated that the proposal was in breach of planning policies for ATCs and raised concerns regarding excessive size and height, and that the proposal would have an adverse impact on surrounding buildings. referred to policies set out in PPS 6 and indicated that the proposal failed to satisfy policy. It also referred to the draft designation of the Victoria Street/Oxford Street ATC and the adverse impact of the proposal on the ATC. It also assessed the potential impacts the proposal would have on the surrounding area and neighbouring listed buildings. The Law Society also had concerns about the impact of construction traffic and service deliveries on objectors’ properties and the impact of construction works on surrounding buildings.
The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service had lodged concerns that the proposal was in breach of planning policies for ATCs; the excessive size and height would have an adverse impact on surrounding buildings; the impact of construction works on the structural stability of the Old Town Hall.
Belfast Civic Trust objected to the height of the building and the choice of construction materials. They believed that the proposal was too high and wanted red brick to be used within the construction.
The Members were advised that DfI Roads, NI Water, Rivers Agency and the NIEA had all been consulted and had no objection to the proposal.
The Chairperson welcomed Mr. G. Rolston, Clyde Shanks, who was representing Mr. D. Mulholland, Chief Executive of the Bar of Northern Ireland. He outlined to the Members that:
· they had raised concerns regarding the assessment of the height and scale of the proposal compared to how the approved 7 storey building was assessed;
· the accuracy of the information which had been used by the Council to compare the height of the 9 storey building to the previously approved building;
· it was a fundamental principle of the planning process that decision makers should behave consistently and, particularly so, where there had been no material change in policy since a previous decision;
· where officers proposed to depart from a previous decision, there should be robust planning reasons for doing so and should eb clearly explained;
· it was referenced in the committee report that a seven storey building was approved in August 2015, however, whilst approval was ultimately granted, the application had been submitted as an eight storey building;
· during the process of the approved application, HED had considered the eight storey proposal unacceptable, under BH11 of PPS6, for reasons of the impact of the height, scale and massing of the proposed building on surrounding listed buildings;
· the Councils’ Conservation officer agreed that an eight storey building would have an unacceptable impact on its surroundings;
· the Planning officers had agreed with HED and insisted that the height of the building was reduced to seven storeys with the top two storeys to be set back and the applicant agreed to that;
· that was the context in which the current application must be considered;
· there was a conflict between the Planning officers’ position in August 2015, where an eight storey was not considered acceptable on the site, and the current position, where a nine storey building was being recommended for approval;
· they could find no justification for the change in position given there had not been a change in planning policy;
· it was notable that HED had queried the Council’s position in regards to the nine storey building;
· the Conservation officer still objected to the nine storey building which was consistent with their position during the processing of the approved planning application;
· it would not be fair or reasonable for the current application to be approved in the absence of addressing the clear inconsistency between the processing of the two applications, and would leave it vulnerable to challenge;
· they had concerns in respect of the measurements in the Committee report, whereby the seven storey building had a height of 28.7metres, with the plant hidden at the back of the roof and not visible from pedestrian level, and that the difference between the extant and the proposed building height was not 5.5metres but, in fact, 8.3metres;
· the CGI image shown by officers of the approved building was not the correct image, it showed a six storey building with a single recessed storey on top, when the approved building was a five storey building with two recessed storeys on top;
· they agreed with HED and the Conservation officer that the proposal was an unacceptable increase in height in respect of its immediate neighbours, the Bar Library, Law Society House and the listed Old Town Hall, and that the recommendation to approve the nine storey building was inconsistent with the position of Planning officers through the processing and determination of the approved seven storey building.
The Chairperson then welcomed Ms. A. Wiggam, Turley, who were the agent for the application. She advised the Members that:
· Conservation was about managing change and that buildings had to respond to the changing context around them in order to remain sustainable, contemporary and attractive;
· the application site had the benefit of an implemented planning permission for a seven storey office building at 31.5metres in height;
· the design responded to the immediate context of the site and its surroundings, and would improve the setting of the Old Town Hall through the development of a high quality design which defined the location with a building which added vibrancy to the important nodal point;
· the contrast in scale, massing and the choice of materials between the Old Town Hall and the proposed development would allow the Old Town Hall to be read separately and ensure that the building retained its dominance onto Victoria Street, due to its proportions, materials and architectural detailing;
· the proposals would provide 4,086 square metres of Grade A office/retail accommodation and would assist in addressing an identified need in the market place to serve indigenous businesses which were expanding and wanted to make the transition from a serviced office accommodation to a small office floor plate within the city centre;
· it was estimated that, during the construction period, 150 jobs could be created over the 18 month build period and, once completed, the development could accommodate between 250 – 300 office workers, whose expenditure would assist in supporting retail and service outlets in the city centre;
· the proposal was not reliant on funding from third parties and therefore could commence quickly following the grant of planning permission; and
· there were no technical or environmental constraints that would preclude the redevelopment of the site, and the proposals largely accorded with current planning policy and with the Council’s City Centre Investment Plan.
A Member requested clarity regarding the difference in approach by officers in relation to what was deemed an acceptable height of the extant proposal and the current proposal, which was taller. The Planning Manager advised the Members that the architectural approach to the current proposal was quite different to the extant design. He stated that the current proposal was a more lightweight and elegant design that would sit more comfortably with the nearby listed buildings, as it was a more restrained backdrop building than the current approval.
A Member requested information from officers as to how the application met planning policy when policy stated that seven storeys was the maximum. The Planning Manager advised the Members that if something was contrary to planning policy, the Planning Authority was still required to demonstrate that there would be demonstrable harm to the public interest resulting from the proposal. The policy was to provide guidance on what may or may not be acceptable in the interest of the preservation of the character and appearance of the draft Area of Townscape Character. He outlined that officers felt that there would be no overriding harm to the public interest because of the way that the building had been designed.
The information contained in the appendices associated with the item were restricted in accordance with Part 1 of Schedule 6 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014.
Resolved – That the Committee agrees to exclude the members of the Press and public from the Committee meeting during discussion of the items as, due to the nature of the items, there would be a disclosure of exempt information as described in Section 42(4) and Section 6 of the Local Government Act (NI) 2014.
The Planning Manager provided the Committee Members with the issues which had been addressed within the restricted report and the appendices which had been circulated.
The Members received deputations from both objectors and the applicant in relation to the restricted report.
Resolved – That the Committee agreed to re-admit the members of the Press and public to the Committee meeting.
Moved by Councillor Groogan
Seconded by Councillor Collins
That, in accordance with the Council decision of 4th May 2021, the Chief Executive exercises her delegated authority to refuse the application due to the inappropriate scale, height and massing of the building, which would be harmful to the setting of the Listed Buildings contrary to Policy BH11 of PPS6; and was harmful to the character of the draft Area of Townscape Character, contrary to the PPS6 Addendum.
On a vote, five Members voted for the proposal and eight against and it was declared lost.
Accordingly, the Chairperson put the officer’s recommendation, that, in accordance with the Council decision of 4th May 2021, the Chief Executive be minded to approve the application, subject to the following conditions which were discussed during the restricted section of the meeting:
1. that formal consultation be undertaken with objectors in relation to the restricted matters;
2. that the proposed Section 76 Planning Agreement be drafted in consultation with those who spoke in relation to the restricted report; and
3. that the application would be brought back to the Members of the Planning Committee for final agreement, to include the outcome of the formal consultation referenced above and presentation of the draft Section 76 Planning Agreement before a final decision is taken.
On a vote, eight Members voted for the proposal and five against and it was accordingly declared carried.