There’s already a good write-up from The News of last night’s Planning Committee meeting at which the Savoy Buildings development was discussed again, after the previous deferral which, we thought, was going to be used by the developer to ‘have a rethink’. In the event, the same plan came back again, still in the same shape that it has been since McCarthy & Stone first took on the site.
The meeting opened with a bit of a farce when it came to the usual declaration of interests by councillors. The rules governing councillors removing themselves from decisions in which they may have a prejudicial interest are strong, rightly. But in this case they seem to have been relied upon by the Lib Dem group as a cop-out from taking a controversial decision.
Cllr Will Purvis works for McCarthy & Stone, has always been open about it, and has had no part in the process (he is not a member of the Planning Committee). In advance of the meeting, Cllr Vernon-Jackson told The News that none of the Lib Dem group on the Committee would take part in the discussion, to avoid allegations of a conflict of interest. This point is getting stretched; knowing someone who has a clear conflict of interest is not necessarily a conflict for you (unless they are your partner).
Despite telling the press, Cllr Vernon-Jackson seems not to have told Cllr Stevens, who said he didn’t feel he would be open to any accusation of prejudicial interest. A legal discussion ensued, involving General Augusto Pinochet and Lord Justice Hoffmann. Hoffmann was a director of an offshoot of Amnesty International, his wife worked for AI, AI had long been an enemy of Pinochet, Hoffmann heard one of the cases Pinochet was involved in while he was in the UK and found against him. Pinochet’s lawyers appealed when they became aware of the Hoffmann/AI link, it ended up at the House of Lords, and they ruled that Hoffmann had a prejudicial interest and should have not heard the case.
It is a leap from saying that a judge who is a director of a human rights charity has an interest to saying that another judge who works with him might have, which was the reason offered as one justification by the legal officer for a Lib Dem withdrawal in this case. It is a different case where one’s wife works for McCarthy & Stone (and would be understood to be a prejucidial interest straight away), but nothing like that is involved here. I think this was a politically-motivated cop-out. On the one hand the Lib Dems don’t want the scheme any more than the rest of us, and would like to oppose it; on the other, they want the luxury of attacking the other parties for throwing it out if it goes to appeal and ends up costing PCC money in legal costs. If it had been passed, they could say “Well, we wanted to oppose it, but you see we couldn’t vote”.
We already have a list of expensive mistakes involving planning in recent years, but of course these all fell within the Lib Dem period of office. The sudden concern for procedural propriety is quite funny, in that respect. If the Lib Dems are now going to start declaring as interests any old thing, then we are in for an awful lot of withdrawals from PCC business in future. I can think of a few decisions that, under this stringent new interpretation, Lib Dem councillors might have withdrawn from in the past.
But after that, we got down to business with a deputation from Mr Pead, who as well as a resident is a planning consultant. He drew attention to several objections based on changes in policy and circumstance since the original planning application was passed on appeal which are relevant to the current application. There were some practical problems relating to contamination of the site that he felt should be considered too. Mr Halloran of the Portsmouth Society made the sort of architectural criticisms you would expect from that body. The News didn’t report Cllr Hunt’s excellent criticism that the impact of the block is like a “denture” filling a gap. It has function, but not organic form.
The representative from McCarthy & Stone, Mr Child, explained the plan again and the revisions that have been made since its original first presentation. That didn’t take long, and so it was over to the councillors to examine.
Cllr Ellcome did most of the examination, first of Simon Barnett of the planning department on what his views of the quality of design are. Was it a “good enough” development which met the minimum standard but no more, or genuinely a “good” design? Mr Barnett felt that “in my opinion it is more than good enough to approve” but added the qualification that design is subjective. This was a slightly awkward passage for the officials because nobody else in the room, apart from the McCarthy & Stone representative shared that view.
Design is subjective, true. The original plans had been passed on to two Design Review Panels, which assess design in planning and give an expert and impartial view on submissions. The Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport and Havant panel saw the initial version and felt that the scheme even as modified wasn’t worthy of support. As this is a major site, the original proposal was put before the Hampshire county panel too, and they felt it was only capable of being supported with considerable modification. However, they were not asked to give an opinion on the modified scheme because the planning officers “didn’t feel they could ask them twice”!
Below is a before and after picture of the design as modified by McCarthy & Stone for your subjective judgment, and perhaps conjecture on what the Hampshire panel might make of the scale of modifications. The original is on top, and the resubmitted below it.
Cllr Hastings said he was in “rare agreement” with Cllr Hunt and that the design is a “monolithic ice cream block”. Cllr Jonas said that it had “come back to us in exactly the same form”.
Cllrs Ellcome and Jonas both referred to the “pressure” exerted in The News report. Cllr Gray observed that he had recently been to Berlin, where great care had been taken in rebuilding the city after the Second World War to rebuild the city sensitively, and with many destroyed buildings being replaced like-for-like. He felt that the views of the council and residents had been “completely ignored in a way that is contemptible”.
Things drew to a close with Cllr Ellcome proposing rejection, Cllr Hastings seconding. The motion was passed unanimously on the grounds that it is an unacceptable development in a conservation area.
Well done to the committee for making this stand. While the surrounding area is a mess at present, it is important in the rush to improve it that we do not abandon good design and the integrity of the conservation area. That the site is passing from commercial use into sheltered housing is a loss of opportunity on the seafront to restore it as a tourist destination or amenity for residents – there is nothing we can do about that now that the land has been sold. But at least we can put pressure on the developer and the planning system to come up with something better than a “denture” or an “ice cream block”.