Happy New Year, readers (seems odd to be saying that in February but I realise this is my first blog since December, so hope you all had a good Christmas).
As you all know, it is not generally my practice to write up Planning Committee meetings unless they are of interest to Billericay East or the wider town and at yesterday’s meeting we considered the application to build flats on the site of the Rising Sun public house on Sun Corner, so I thought I would give an account of the meeting. The site actually falls within the neighbouring Burstead ward but is right at the southeastern boundary of my own ward.
Most of you will be aware that the Rising Sun, which dates back to 1810 and is a prominent building at the southern end of Billericay High Street, called time for the final time in August 2014 and has been boarded up since. This, I suspect, is simply the way of the world. Changing times, changing lifestyles, changing tastes have all taken their toll. The market trends are there for all to see and the Sun is not the first, or I suspect the last, traditional English pub to go to the wall. We have seen the Duke of York in South Green (for many years my ‘local’) close and reopen as a restaurant. The King’s Head further down the road has long been, in reality, a ‘pub-themed’ restaurant rather than an actual pub. The White Hart and the Crown are all shortly to become restaurants and the Red Lion has been remodelled and is unrecognisable from the dingy place I remember from my youth. Personally, I miss the dinginess. After a hard day at work, I still crave that comforting gloom – dark wood fixtures and fittings, rickety furniture, poor lighting, tobacco smoke fog, fireplace covered in horse brasses, a bar maid who has a few miles on the clock that are starting to show but you flirt with her anyway and, the most vital ingredient of all, a pub dog – preferably a bulldog, who walks in zigzags and is always drooling and bleary-eyed. That, to me, is a proper pub. I must admit, my own patronage of pubs has decreased markedly since the smoking ban. I am an unapologetic lover of the tobacco leaf and used to enjoy puffing on a cigar over a pint. But those days are gone and my personal tastes are no longer in vogue. Now I stay at home, where I can sit back in my armchair and enjoy a pint of store-bought bitter in the comfort of my own home, enveloped in an acrid fug of blue pipe smoke. The reality for the future of the Sun, sadly, was always going to be either conversion into yet another eatery or housing. So while it is only right and proper that we should eulogise the demise of yet another great, traditional English pub – and one where I enjoyed being a patron over many years – I do think we need to accept the inevitable.
On the basis of the above, I supported the principle of the proposed development to provide much needed housing by converting the site into thirteen residential flats. Initially I was pleased with the proposed conversion of the XIX-Century pub building, which was sympathetic and well executed and would at least preserve the familiar façade of this iconic local building. Although the Rising Sun is not Listed, it is ‘of an age’ and a building of important local interest and I was pleased to see that the developer had taken steps to preserve this heritage for the sake of posterity. That then made the second half of the application all the more disappointing.
Unfortunately, the design for the infill building, to replace the two current outbuildings between the pub and the neighbouring sheltered accommodation in Albion Court, was a horrific, flat-roofed, modernist ‘cube’, completely out of keeping with the current streetscene, incompatible with the Billericay Conservation Area and in conflict with the Billericay Design Statement and the Billericay Conservation Area Character Appraisal and Management Plan. The design of this building was, frankly, somewhat baffling to me. First of all, the flat roof is specifically covered in the Billericay Design Statement (Section 9 – A7), which says “Flat roofs have aesthetic and practical disadvantages and generally should be avoided”. It is important to understand that the Conservation Area was implemented for a reason. Our High Street has tremendous character and rich architectural heritage but, sadly, the mid-XX-Century was not kind and I dare say all of us can think of buildings in the High Street that detract from it and have a negative impact. Indeed, Albion Court itself is arguably one such development. The Conservation Area was put in place to limit the proliferation of such harm and prevent further erosion of the historic setting and character of Billericay. It was, therefore, disappointing that the applicants did not follow the original advice they were apparently given, which was to follow a more “traditional design approach”. Sadly, it seems the architect was ‘got at’ by Essex County Council’s ‘conservation specialist advisor’ – and, frankly, I think the architect was done up like a kipper!
Judging from the frankly rather skewed advice the architect received from the County man, I can only assume the latter is a devotee of the dreaded Venice Charter – a code of practice drawn up in 1964 (in Venice, appropriately enough) – Article 9 of which states that any “extra work…must be distinct from the architectural composition and bear a contemporary stamp”. Those words – ‘contemporary stamp’ – have had a pretty profound effect on a great many historic buildings. I shall not belabour the point, but it is stupid thinking like this that leaves us with a bizarre giant glass pyramid outside the Louvre in Paris. The video below from the organisation Architecture MMXII gives you some idea of the damage this thinking has done (try not to let the annoying voice of the narrator distract you). Needless to say, I do not hold with this outlook. It seems to me that Modernist architecture, as a concept, is designed to appease the self-satisfaction of architects themselves but with no thought given at all to the communities and ordinary men and women who have to use these buildings or live in their shadow. Certainly, the steer given to the applicant seems to have consciously pointed them away from what would clearly be the preference of local people, for a design that is sympathetic to the surrounding environment and in keeping with the area, and towards yet another boxy monstrosity that sneers at our tradition, history and heritage – the sort of building the Prince of Wales famously called “a hideous carbuncle”.
Architecture MMXII (click here for video)
There were other issues with this application. There is a projected shortfall in available primary school places that would need to be addressed through a Section 106 agreement with the developer, based on the number of two-bed flats (one-bedroom flats – with perhaps sweet naïveté – are not deemed likely to generate children). Fortunately, I was able to establish that the claim in the report, that five one-bed flats were proposed and eight two-beds, was in fact inaccurate. The floor plan in the application indicated four one-beds and nine two-beds. On investigation, this turned out to indeed be the case (hat-tip to Town Councillor Adam Adshead for also pointing that out). I was also disappointed by the lack of any provision for affordable housing within the scheme. As a matter of policy, the Borough seeks 30% affordable housing in schemes such as these, unless an independent viability study is provided that illustrates that a scheme would be economically unviable with such a requirement and, in this case, there was no viability study. Another major issue was the lack of parking, as the plans only identified parking provision for one car per household and we all know that, in the XI-Century, the reality is that most of us live in multi-car households and where you have a two-bedroom flat, chances are both occupants will have a car. Combine that with the lack of any visitor parking and you clearly have a problem, not least because parking in Billericay High Street is already a perennial nightmare. But, fundamentally, while some of these issues can be addressed, it was not even worth discussing at length with the current design for the infill building, as there is no way on earth I would ever vote in favour of such a design.
My very strong advice to the developer was to junk the steer given by the man at County and come back to the Committee with a more classical design, in keeping with the Billericay Conservation Area. I hope that they do and I wish them well because the only thing I can think of that I want marginally less than a modernist cube is an empty, boarded-up building falling into rack and ruin at the southern end of our High Street. We already have the shameful spectacle of Elizabeth Cottage at the north end of the High Street and we do not want the Rising Sun standing idly by either.
The final item on the agenda did not concern Billericay but was interesting nonetheless, as it was a rather trivial application concerning the moving of a garden fence. A matter this mundane would not normally come before the Committee but the applicant, Mrs Sandra Hillier, is the wife of a councillor (Stephen Hillier, Con, Langdon Hills) and was herself a councillor for the same ward until May of last year. Therefore it had to come before the Committee.
Essentially, Mrs Hillier currently owns the land at the rear of her property, which abuts the public highway, but currently she can derive no enjoyment from it, as she cannot see it from her house. She has to contend, meanwhile, with people dropping litter on it, dog fouling, people parking their cars on it, disputes over her ownership, people digging up her plants, even stealing newly-planted trees. Not unreasonably, therefore, she would like to extend her garden fence to envelop some (but not all) of it. Whilst I had no doubt that accusations of ‘bias’ might abound, I honestly saw no problem with it and, though the officers had recommended refusal on the grounds of reducing ‘openness’, I thought this a very silly thing and spoke against it. Hearteningly, Cllr Adele Brown (Lab, Fryerns) also spoke out in Mrs Hillier’s defence, proudly declaring “I’m a common-sense Yorkshirewoman”, who found it outrageous that Mrs Hillier “can’t enjoy her own garden”.
Sadly, her colleague Cllr Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea South-East) decided to lecture the Tory members of the Committee on “how it looks” and castigated us for even dreaming of voting against a “clear officer recommendation” (even though he and Councillor Brown both did just that when they voted not once but twice against a clear officer recommendation to refuse developments on Green Belt land – most notably when they authorised construction of a huge solar array off Outwood Farm Road in my Billericay East ward!). Frankly, the fact Mrs Hillier used to be a Tory councillor is irrelevant. It seemed to me that common sense ought to prevail and I did not care a fig ‘how it looked’. Former Tory councillors are as entitled to a fair hearing by Committee members as anyone else and I would have felt the same way whoever the applicant had been (even had it been a former Labour councillor). I have not yet been fully immersed in the labyrinthine intricacies of planning regulations (give me a couple more years on the Committee) and, quaintly, I still cleave to the basic notion that an Englishman’s home is his castle… So if he wants to move his fence who am I to stop him? It is also worth pointing out that the officers clarified that, had the proposed new fence been sited one meter further back, it would have come under permitted development rights and would not have required a planning application anyway. There was only one serial opponent of the application and even he indicated that he would be prepared to withdraw his opposition if the Hilliers erected a wall rather than a fence (which Mrs Hillier indicated she was happy to do). Nevertheless, having been ‘got at’ by officers and browbeaten by Councillor McGurran, opposition councillors – including Councillor Brown, despite declaring her support for the application early on – voted against.
So now this application must go back, be re-submitted by Mrs Hillier stating she wishes to build a wall rather than a fence, the application will have to be heard by the Committee again, so all in all a giant waste of time, a waste of Mrs Hillier’s money, a waste of the taxpayers’ money and all, frankly, for naked political reasons because Councillor McGurran is worried about ‘how it will look’ to pass an application submitted by an ex-Tory councillor and because Councillor Brown was too craven to vote her conscience. Well, I voted mine, so there. All this in a quibble over one meter of land! Ah, well, welcome to the occasional silliness that is the Planning Committee.