Fresh housing plans at one of Preston’s prime heritage assets have been thrown out, with the millionaire-backed business behind the scheme sent back to the drawing board.
It marks the latest twist in a controversial proposal to build more than 30 new houses and apartment on the site of the former Harris Orphanage and an adjoining former cricket field, where former Lancashire and England all rounder Andrew Flintoff practised as a youngster.
Several historic buildings – some of which are Grade II-listed – would have been extended and converted for residential use.
But Preston City Council’s planning committee refused permission for the scheme on what is now known as the Harris Knowledge Park – and is the only intact, purpose-built orphanage on Historic England’s list of buildings architectural and historic interest.
The decision came in spite of the fact that the number of new properties proposed for the Garstang Road plot had recently been slashed. The planned tally for the cricket pitch was more than halved from 58 to 23, while one fewer home was put forward for the eastern portion of the site – where a total of seven new dwellings were set to be interwoven within the surroundings of the late nineteenth century children’s home.
Planning officers recommended that the scheme be refused after concluding that it would have caused “substantial harm to the character and appearance” of a site which is designated as a conservation area – as well as introducing an “unacceptable level of development” within the site’s historic park and garden, themselves Grade II-listed.
Committee members were told that the applicant - Eden Grove Investment Properties Ltd, owned by Preston millionaire Yousuf Bhailok - had been advised that even their revised proposal would not be deemed acceptable. Despite this, it was submitted anyway.
Planning agent Alban Cassidy said that pre-application discussions with the city council appeared to have been progressing well before being “suddenly terminated” last month.
“Our latest proposals were genuinely well-received by planning officers…[and] our negotiations were still ongoing. Refusing the applications will not benefit the site, it will not provide a future [for it] – it will simply kick the can down the road…negating the progress that was made,” Mr Cassidy said.
He added that the cricket pitch should no longer be evaluated as such – because it had been out of use for 13 years since the site went into private hands.
“It’s not a cricket pitch now, it’s an overgrown area of grass,” Mr, Cassidy claimed – but he said that the applicant had not completely ruled out making a contribution to the development of an alternative facility elsewhere in the area, although that would depend on the resolution of other viability issues.
The site had previously been on the market for a period of 18 months, with the only two expressions of interest both having been based on the kind of planning permission now being sought. However, the Friends of Harris Park group told the committee that were other viable options to secure the site’s future.
“We have various plans for recovering its use – for example, a wedding venue, heritage site, a cottage museum [and] there are various local craftspeople who would be interested in taking up officers there,” said co-founder Prema Taylor.
“Maybe we could even restore the cricket pitch – it’s all very ambitious. What makes [Harris Park] especially dear to the people of Preston is that it was created from a bequest from the will of Edmund Harris – a local, respected Victorian lawyer and philanthropist who was keen to improve the lot of the ordinary citizens of Preston, particularly the under-privileged,” Ms. Taylor added.
A total of 183 objections were raised to the revised proposal – and one angry local addressing the meeting blamed the council for the “parlous state” of the conservation area and its use by the applicant as “justification” for the proposed development.
Mark Field told the committee: “Astonishingly, the planning department said that, in principle, residential development of the conservation area was deemed acceptable. The applicant took this as a green light to proceed with this application.”
Planning officers concluded that the proposed route through the site ignored “the importance of [its] historic layout”, that the loss of a playing pitch was without “adequate justification or mitigation” and that the planned entry and exit arrangements would have an unacceptable impact on highway safety.
Committee members were equally unimpressed, with Councillor David Borrow noting that the deferral sought by the applicant to resolve outstanding issues was unlikely to be sufficient.
“The downsides of this proposed development are so great, that we’re not talking about minor amendments – I think it would be much better if the applicant came forward with a completely new plan,” he said.
A full application for the seven new properties on the east of the site and the change of use of some of the historic buildings – along with an outline application for the 23 properties on the playing field – were both unanimously refused.
Separate listed building consent was also turned down on a majority of 11 votes to one, because of concern over the scale of a mezzanine floor in the chapel building and a proposed extension to a small property known as The Lodge.
Alban Cassidy said a compromise on the “modest” issues had been within reach.
However, cabinet member for planning Peter Moss – also a planning committee member – warned just before the vote: “We are beholden to the national planning system. The local planning authority is not always in control of all the issues that members of the public would like us [to be]. Whatever decision is [made] today, it may not be the end of the matter."
As well as the new properties, the application had sought permission for the change of use of Clayton Hall and the Harris Conference Centre to create nine apartments and three town houses; the refurbishment and extensions of Glenrosa House, Oak House, Chestnut House, The Poplars, Holly House, The Laurels, The Lodge and The Pond House to convert them from offices to eight dwellings’ the demolition of The Laundry House, Yew Tree House, the former cricket pavilion and garage; and the retention of Ashleigh House and Beech House as homes.