The committee then moved onto consider the first of two planning applications involving Bidston & St. James ward. The first involved the demolition of a number of vacant community buildings in Laird Street, along with a number of properties on Park Road North and Bray Street.
The officer said the planning application was for demolition of two buildings which was a brownfield site in a regeneration area which would be redeveloped for affordable housing. He said Keepmoat Homes already had a separate developer’s agreement with Wirral Partnership Homes. He said retaining these buildings was not a viable option and that the recommended separation distances were not wholly achieved. There was a qualifying petition.
The Chair invited the petitioner to address the Planning Committee.
Professor Robert Lee introduced himself as the Chair of the Friends of Birkenhead Park. He said he had been told by officers it was not possible to give a Powerpoint presentation, but asked how many had seen the houses? Professor Lee said they were not listed buildings and weren’t listable, but had been built in 1882 by the Laird family and had been standing for 134 years.
Professor Lee told those present that at the Wirral History and Heritage Fair they had collected an extra eighty-five signatures on their petition, which showed the depth of concern. He said that those signing held the Planning Committee responsible and that “public opinion was clear”. The professor pointed to the quality of the buildings, which were of superior quality, a “rich period character” and pointed out that these were all comments of Wirral Council’s Conservation Area staff.
Professor Robert Lee was keen to emphasise the importance of neighbourhood planning as well as the opportunity for voluntary and community groups to shape proposals. He said that only one public event had been run for the whole site which less than thirty people had attended and that the developer had never consulted the Friends of Birkenhead Park. He went on further to say that the Presbyterian Church had been “kept in the dark” and that a Hugh Jones (treasurer, deacon and secretary) had quoted a Welsh hymn by saying that they were “living in a wilderness”. The professor said there had been serious deficiencies of process and that the key issue was a refurbishment option and the way it had been dismissed.
Professor Lee referred to the report highlighting the long-term settlement and poor condition of the boundary wall as well as a funding gap of £322,000. He said the Friends of Birkenhead Park wanted an independent survey, which had been refused, as the report had been commissioned by the developer to facilitate demolition. Their report said that if it was not demolished, then it would cast delivery of the project into doubt if planning permission was not forthcoming. He questioned the figures used and said that the comparable sale values in taking into account terraces in Cavendish Street were incorrect as these were a lower quality. If it had been done by one of his students, he would’ve failed them.
He wanted the developer to look at a realistic figures to eliminate the funding gap and at the option of flats. Professor Lee said that Birkenhead Park was a key prospect for World Heritage status and this bid was supported by Peel. If in the immediate buffer zone properties were demolished or new construction was not fitting they would fail in their bid. He referred to a claim of the new Cabinet Member for Leisure and Tourism and asked the Planning Committee to reject the application and to ask the developer to rethink and to consider refurbishment.
The Chair thanked Professor Lee and said they would look at it on its merits, he wanted to clarify that the houses were great as they are but not listed. He asked the applicant to speak in support of the applicant.
The applicant introduced himself as Alan McGuinness, Regional Development Manager for Keepmoat Homes. Mr. McGuiness said they had been consulting with the Planning Department over various regeneration sites in the Laird Street and Birkenhead area, to look at how to present a proposal in keeping with the streetscene. He said they had consulted with the Planning Department over what proposal was in keeping and as benefit going forward, he wanted to respond to some of the points raised by Professor Lee.
Mr. McGuinness said they had looked at the condition and viability and taken stock of the refurbishment costs versus the value of the property delivered as to the price they’d be able to sell it at and found it wasn’t viable. He said they had tried to replicated was is a nice facade, they had consulted, but couldn’t be held responsible for the numbers turning up to a consultation event.
The Chair asked if there was a ward councillor present. There wasn’t.
Cllr John Salter said that he knew the houses well and the area. Fourteen properties had been written to and it had been advertised in the press as well as an open day. He supported Professor Lee and would love to keep the empty buildings, but where would the money come from? Cllr Salter said the country was “in dire straits” and that he would support the application.
Cllr Stuart Kelly said that it was a major thoroughfare and a gateway and that they couldn’t dismiss it. He said they were “splendid looking buildings” and referred to the Conservation Area over the road.
The Chair asked to see an elevation.
The officer showed the elevation and said that the corner building would be replaced with a block. The Chair referred to the points made by the objector and the concerns about heritage status. He said that the refurbishment option was not viable or commercial and there had been comments about the condition. He said they had a recommendation for approval subject to conditions.
Cllr Stuart Kelly asked a point of clarification about the block shown in the elevation and whether it was flats? The officer said that was what was proposed.
Cllr John Salter and Cllr Dave Mitchell proposed and seconded approval of the application.
Councillors except Cllr Patricia Glasman and Cllr Stuart Kelly voted for. Cllr Glasman and Cllr Kelly voted against so the application was approved.
Professor Lee then made a plea to the developer to carry out a digital report prior to demolition. The Chair said it was not normally a debate, however asked the Planning Committee if they would add it as an extra condition, which they were happy to do so.