The Planning Inspectorate has granted planning permission for the proposals to build a number of “monolith” dwellings on the site of the old auction rooms next to Garden Street and Southover Road in Lewes.  This was the result of an appeal by the developers against the refusal by the South Downs National Park to give planning permission.

This is despite the widespread condemnation of the plans by local people in the consultation.

The objection of Mr Cross, a Dorset Road resident, was typical.  He said. “Like many of my fellow resident I’m horrified by the questionable aesthetics of the ‘monoliths’illustrated in the latest proposal. They are both out of keeping with the local vernacular style ofarchitecture and out of proportion with other properties in the surrounding area. How can this be seriously considered as acceptable in a conservation area of historic importance and beauty”.

The Friends of Lewes commented “Of serious concern is the lack of consideration of the relationship of the proposals within the irimmediate townscape context and in particular with the neighbouring housing development in Tanners Brook and the need to relate to the Garden Street frontage with its significant change of levels.”

The Lewes Conservation Advisory Group went even further. They said:

Only one letter of support was received by the planners but there were numerous objections.

But the Planning Inspectorate said that “The design is of a high quality as befits this location” and allowed the appeal.

However it appears that the National Park is not taking this lying down and is proposing to the challenge the decision in the courts, so strongly does it feel about the case.

You can see the planning documents here

There is to be no “affordable” housing on the site.

UPDATE 1 MAY 2021

 It now appears that the SDNPA does not feel able to challenge this Appeal Decision despite their Planning Committee unanimously rejecting it, not only as unsuitable to the site but as a design that the applicant, Quantum,  made clear was, as a ‘high quality’ build, in the Inspector’s words, was intended not to allow for any  ‘affordable’  housing to be included. The local opinions on this planned development, which the Eye previously reported, appear to have been ignored in the appeal process, and no one seems to have been asked, as appears to be usual, to submit written evidence to the Appeal. The Inspectorate website says that due to covid they are taking 60 days to respond so it is hard to be clear about the procedure that should have been followed. Surely the process of this appeal needs to be challenged?

     The appeal is Ref APP/Y9507/W/20?32957 but if you search for this nothing appears. You have to look on the SDNPA planning applications site. Quantum are based in South Croydon https://www.quantum-homes.co.uk/. They will doubtless have more funds to challenge planning decisions in defence of their profits, than the SDNPA, as a public body, has to resist Inspectorate decisions against them. As Quantum themselves say they are ‘a high end bespoke housebuilder’ who are ‘always on the lookout for new development’ . They have ‘grown exponentially’ since founded in 2014. In other words exactly the kind of housebuilder who does not want to build affordable housing of any kind and has a clear interest in establishing that they can avoid building it by arguing, in effect, that the ‘high end’ design is itself a visual virtue for the rest of us but can only be built for the rich. They ‘have a number of sites at different stages of the acquisition and planning process across the South East of England’. If the SDNPA are going to insist on 50% affordable housing and persist in supporting Neighbourhood Plans who ask for even more locally affordable, as Lewes has, it will plainly interfere with Quantum’s aims and profits.

        So this makes a nice test case for this major ‘high end’ housebuilder, as the first allocated site to come forward in the Lewes Neighbourhood Plan that asks for locally affordable housing, to attack that aim as well as the SDNPA’s aim for 50% affordable.  This is not just about this site. This is to establish a precedent for ignoring policy on affordable housing in allocated sites which Neighbourhood Plans will keep asking for. Is it not the role of the Inspectorate in such a case to defend policy in plans that they have themselves, after all, approved?

    Petersfield Neighbourhood Plan has been much more fortunate in maintaining their affordable housing. The Appeal against them was not granted. There the Inspector, who seems to be a planner, upheld the decision of the SDNPA Planning Committee and their right to decide against the recommendation of the SDNPA’s own officers. Why this discrepancy? There is also a High Court case concerning a Parkhurst Road development in London that ruled that affordable housing must be provided on allocated sites.

    The Lewes Neighbourhood Plan established that the need for affordable housing in this town cannot be served only by the government rate of 80% of market value because our housing market is so affected by the purchasing power of those with London incomes, and the Planning Inspectorate agreed that we need a Lewes Low Cost Housing policy defining affordability in relation to local incomes. Having agreed to policies on affordable housing the Inspectorate surely has the responsibility to see policy applied with an even hand?    

     The SDNPA did not help this case by allowing the case officers originally to recommend it for approval, but they are new to having their own Local Plan, before this they worked with a variety of local planning authorities, and the wheels are not yet connecting as smoothly as could be wished. They should have looked more carefully at the Quantum website. Still surely it is the role of the Inspectorate to ensure that in such cases policy is applied and so to support the Planning Committee when they do apply it

Is there a way out of this?      

        The Planning Inspectorate are working, like all such institutions, under great difficulties in these times.  They might well have missed that this site is significant beyond the number of dwellings planned. Lewes is unusual in the number of small sites in our Plan because the geography of our town is so constrained by the downs and the river. So as they admit to working under difficulties can we hope that there is perhaps an opening for the Inspectorate to allow that they mistook the significance of this site and briefed an Inspector to consider only the design and maybe therefore perhaps failed to follow up local opinion?

    The Inspector’s decision is a very bad one, as the SDNPA Planning Committee pointed out, the issue is whether this site is viable for affordable housing not whether the particular ‘high end bespoke’ plan offered can be built affordably. The architect Inspector is only concerned with the fineness of the design and accepts it cannot be ‘affordable’. We know such great glass houses stand empty for months even years, providing for no one’s housing need. But the pandemic surely offers a chance to reverse this mistake.

    So our little site seems in no way as significant as the huge ‘high end’ Tower Hamlets site Mr Jenrick was so eager to help a Tory donor get approved in time to avoid giving Tower Hamlets council, to whose politics he objected, the financial compensation due. But in these times it does come to mind to ask, has Lewes somehow been similarly selected for political non compliance?  Did someone buy Mr Johnson a particularly nice sofa? Let us rather assume the Inspectorate mishandled this case under understandable pressure of the pandemic and will correct their mistake without the need for anyone to have to risk the costs of judicial review.

    The Right Honourable Robert Jenrick is of course still in office and declaring his enthusiasm, in his Forward to the governments white paper, for secure homes ‘with residents more engaged with what happens in their areas’.  Proposal 9* is to retain Neighbourhood Plans and even to ‘adapt the concept to very small areas’. But do they hear our voices above the voices of developers?

  *  Here is the inspector on ‘Affordable Housing’ and readers of the Eye might like to try and make sense of the logic here.

Affordable Housing

19.      Policy SD28 of the Local Plan sets out the requirements for affordable housing according to the size of development, with all development in Use Class C3 being included. Supporting paragraphs 7.63 to 7.68 contain guidance on viability. The Authority adopted the Supplementary Planning Document ‘Affordable Housing’ in July 2020, with a section entitled ‘Using Policy SD28 Affordable Homes’.

20.           It is clear that considerable information had been provided to lead the Officers to conclude that the provision of affordable housing was not viable, and this included checks by third party consultants. A mechanism had been agreed to revisit the development economics, and that has now been set within the Agreement provided to the Appeal.

21.      That conclusion as to a lack of immediate viability is particular to the economics of this design, and although the Authority do not now resile from the agreed position, and do not appear to be suggesting that a lesser quality should be produced in order to provide affordable housing, the tone of the Reason for Refusal is that due to the design being considered unacceptable by the Committee, the rationale for not seeking affordable housing in the first instance falls away. The Committee refer to the need for young people’s housing and the suitability of the site’s location for that purpose.

22.      In the event and for the reasons set out in the first main issue, the design proposed is not only considered acceptable and to cause no harm, but is to a high standard that would make-good the shortcomings of the site as currently presented in this prominent location. On that basis there is no reason to consider the process carried out, including the use of external experts, as being other than the robust approach sought in the supporting text to Policy SD28 at paragraph 7.64. The Agreement submitted does however provide for the issue to be revisited if appropriate. With that provision, the lack of affordable housing is acceptable under the terms of Policy SD28.

On

* Proposal 9 of the white paper supports Neighbour hood Plans.

2.55, ‘over 2,600 communities have started the process’

2.56 ‘also interested in whether there is scope to extend and adapt the concept so that very small areas – such as individual streets- can set their own rules for the form of development which they are happy to see’

[quote paras 19-22 including accepts that ‘a lack of immediate viability is particular to the economics of this design’ (para 21 of his Decision document) and that the Authority (the SDNPA) do not appear to be suggesting that a lesser quality should be produced in order to provide affordable housing,  the tone of the Reason for Refusal is that due to the design being considered unacceptable by the Committee, the rational for not seeking affordable housing in the first instance falls away. The Committee refer to the need for young people’s housing and the suitability of the site’s location for that purpose. etc]