The importance that planning policy gives to the preservation of heritage assets was underlined by a High Court case in which planning consent for a controversial high-rise apartment block in an iconic riverside location was overturned.
The relevant site had been targeted for development since the 1980s but, in topographical terms, it was exceptionally problematic. It also lay between two conservation areas and heritage assets – including a Grade I-listed Georgian church – were located nearby.
Over 300 local people objected to the proposed block, which would rise to between 11 and 14 storeys and comprise 289 flats. Residents of a neighbouring apartment building were prominent in attempts to block the development. Even after the height of the proposed building was reduced by two storeys, planning permission was refused by the local authority.
The developer's appeal was, however, subsequently upheld by a planning inspector who consented to the development. In her decision, the inspector noted that the site was in public ownership and that the proposal was fully funded and deliverable. The site was a longstanding development prospect in a prime location but remained vacant because various proposals had in the past never got off the ground.
She criticised aspects of the block's design, describing its appearance as somewhat regimented and serious, but went on to find that it would sit comfortably on the site and would not appear incongruous in the area. Harm that the project would cause to the setting of the church would, the inspector found, be less than substantial. Overall, she concluded that the economic, social and environmental benefits of the proposal were more than sufficient to outweigh heritage objections.
Overturning the inspector's decision, however, the Court found that, when assessing the level of harm to the church, she took into account an irrelevant consideration. Her finding that the harm could not be further minimised by adopting alternative designs was immaterial to the heritage issue and may have affected her conclusion that the harm was towards the lower end of the less than substantial category.
The legal error also tainted the inspector's disagreement with English Heritage's view that harm to the church's setting would be moderate. The planning permission was quashed and, given that it was a finely balanced case, the Court directed that the developer's appeal should be considered afresh by a different inspector.