Members of the public and councillors seeking to save Gillingham’s iconic St Martin’s House from demolition are racing against the clock after a lively and at times angry town hall meeting was told that the planning process appears to be going much faster than normal.
Commenting on the plans by Magna Housing to put 59 so-called extra care flats on the St Martin’s site off Queen Street, Councillor Val Pothecary told last month’s meeting: ‘We are running out of time. I have never seen anything go through as quickly as this in a major development.’
Magna Housing say the building could be knocked down at any time, though Dorset County Council say the timing of the demolition will depend on the planning application and the outcome of discussions with the housing association.
Many who attended October’s public meeting at the town hall were angry that there had been no public consultation from site owners Dorset County Council about the plans to get rid of this historic 19th century building even though that council agreed to sell the site for £500,000 in June 2017. Members of the town council’s planning committee admitted the first they had heard of the plans was when news emerged on Facebook.
There was also dismay that planning authority North Dorset District Council (NDDC) told the county council they did not need planning permission to demolish the house even though it is earmarked in the adopted Gillingham Neighbourhood Plan as a building that needs to be preserved (see separate story below).
Local councillors and members of the public agreed to do all they could to fight the proposal, launching a petition, lobbying the county council and MP Simon Hoare, and exploring options to challenge NDDC’s decision to allow demolition without planning permission.
Also present at the meeting was Paul Read, head of development at Magna Housing, who said it was the county council who had decided it wanted extra care houses – which allow people to live independently and avoid the need to go into a residential home – on the site and that it would be the council’s decision to demolish St Martin’s House, which occupies one corner of the site. Mr Read said they had tried to keep the red-brick house. ‘The first thing we did was look at retaining the building. But it doesn’t work for an extra care facility. This is the solution that works,’ he said, referring to the 59 new build units spread across the site.
Mr Read was repeatedly asked why he could not compromise and have five or so fewer units on the site and keep St Martin’s House for offices or as social housing for younger people. However, he said 54 or 55 units was the lowest number at which such schemes were ‘economically viable’, and said that because of flooding issues not all of the site could be developed. Mr Read pledged that Magna would try to find ways to incorporate features or original material from St Martin’s on the site as part of its ‘legacy’. He insisted that it was a ‘great site’ for such a facility as it was close to the town centre and its services, enabling residents to access them on mobility scooters.
Town, district and county councillor David Walsh told the meeting the county council’s aim was to provide extra care facilities in every town and that in June 2017 he had supported the development of the St Martin’s site for this purpose. ‘The history society and everyone here loves this building. But I am looking at people and how people are and how people survive and how people pay for things. This is purely a decision based on having an extra care facility in every town, and I support that,’ he said. Councillor Walsh came under fire over why the town had not been consulted about the demolition plans before, with the county council accused of ‘arrogance’ and ‘going behind people’s backs’. Councillor Walsh said he had called for consultation when the demolition plans emerged in September, calling the way that had happened ‘disgraceful’. But he conceded he had not called for a consultation when the plans for the development were discussed at county level in June 2017.
Town councillor Mike Gould urged compromise. ‘We the residents feel we have been ridden roughshod over,’ he said. Councillor Barry Von Clemens, who is deputy mayor of Gillingham, said that objecting to the planning application for the extra care units was pointless if St Martin’s House had already been demolished. ‘The anger is that this has happened in Dorchester, miles away from the people of Gillingham. It is in my view damned unfair that we have not been told until the final stages and processes are underway. I think it’s destroying just a little corner of everybody’s heart in this town.’
Local resident Alan Cull said that bit by bit the town was being stripped of its features. ‘Gillingham is losing its character, its history,’ he said.
Town councillors Stephen Joyce and Sharon Cullingford both raised the issue of providing social and affordable housing for younger people in the town. Paul Read said providing extra care homes would free up other homes for younger people. Councillor Cullingford said she was also ‘concerned’ that the county had been offered £1.1 million for the site yet had agreed to sell it to Magna Housing for £500,000. Paul Read said this was because by putting people into the extra care facility rather than a residential home the county council estimated it could save £600,000 ‘year on year’ and the deal was better value.
Another resident, Lavinia Skevington, raised the question of the existing tenants in St Martin’s House and neighbouring buildings whose presence had prevented the buildings being vandalised. ‘Where are they to go? Could the building not be used to make it habitable for the young people of this town who I think have been very badly used?’ she asked. Anne Kings noted: ‘I think we’ve forgotten about the people who are living there at the moment.’
Councillor Pothecary said that while petitions and lobbying were important, it was through the planning system that their best chance for halting the demolition lay. ‘Frankly I have my doubts that anybody in Dorchester will listen.’
A spokesperson for DCC told this paper that ‘regrettably’ they had not been able to produce a viable scheme with Magna Housing on the site that would allow St Martin’s to be kept. ‘We are committed to the provision of an appropriate extra care housing scheme,’ they said. ‘If it imposes restrictions on the developer that make the scheme unviable then they have the right to rescind the contract and the county council will not be able to deliver a scheme in line with its adult social care need requirements.’ The council insisted it had ‘acted in accordance for consultation for a prior approval to ascertain if a separate application is needed for demolition.’ As for when the demolition would occur, that decision will form ‘part of the timing discussions with Magna Housing’.
The spokesperson said they council had not yet served 28 days notice on the ‘property guardians’ who lived in the existing buildings and whom they had ‘no obligation to rehouse’. That was down to the agency who handled their licensing agreement, Ad Hoc Property Management.
North Dorset MP Simon Hoare said having more than 50 extra care units would be useful to the community. ‘I think there will be broad welcome, particularly in a constituency which has a high number of retired people.’
** The online petition against the demolition is at: www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/439/211/391/
Has Neighbourhood Plan failed at first hurdle?
The fact that North Dorset District Council ruled that owners Dorset County Council do not need permission to knock down St Martin’s House despite its status in Gillingham’s Neighbourhood Plan as a ‘heritage asset’ to be preserved has created concern among the authors of that plan. David Beaton, who was chairman of the town’s NP group, told the public meeting they had worked on it for six years from 2012.
‘It concerns me that maybe this Neighbourhood Plan which has just been adopted by [NDDC] is not going to be taken any notice of. Because our policy 27 finishes with the words: “Where historic/locally important buildings and features are within the same site as a development proposal, their repair (if needed) and retention should be secured”,’ he said. ‘I’m just concerned that this six years of work that we put into this Neighbourhood Plan is actually not going to be taken any notice of.’ Councillor Val Pothecary, who was also closely involved in the plan, told the meeting: ‘If this is at risk, what about all the other buildings that we all took time to put on that Neighbourhood Plan list? Something has got to give because frankly I want some reassurance that our Neighbourhood Plan is on safe ground. ‘
David Beaton later told this paper that they had not realised that their hopes for non-designated heritage assets could be ‘sidelined’ like this. ‘This has been the first real test of the NP and it has been shown to have no influence at all….very worrying…very soul-destroying,’ he said.
However, NDDC denied it had ‘ignored’ the Neighbourhood Plan. ‘Rather, the council has complied with its legal requirements as set out in the Town and Country Planning General Permitted Development Order 2015’, said a spokesperson. They insisted: ‘Neighbourhood Plans are an important part of the planning process, outlining local aspirations for development and protections in a given area. They are an important consideration in the plan making and planning application process.’ But on this occasion the Neighbourhood Plan was not a document the council ‘can consider’, nor was the council’s conservation officer consulted.
Simon Hoare MP pointed out that, while important, Neighbourhood Plans are not ‘carved in tablets of stone’, though he understood why people who had spent time and effort on them might be annoyed. ‘I don’t think the lesson from this is that Neighbourhood Plans are worthless. That would be the wrong lesson to draw,’ he said.