BSCF's Detailed Comments on Henderson's Proposals for the Causeway Site New!

Letter to East Herts District Council

Director of Neighbourhood Services (Development Control)
East Herts Council
Wallfields,
Pegs Lane,
Hertford,
SG13 BDQ
22 December 2010

For The Attention of Martin Plummer

OLD RIVER LANE/ CAUSEWAY PLANNING AND CONSERVATION AREA CONSENT APPLICATIONS 3/10/1964/OP & 3/10/1965/LC

1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation to make representations about these applications.

2. Attached to this letter are the detailed objections by the Civic Federation to these proposals. We set out below the wider context of the history of planning in the centre of Bishop's Stortford to which these proposals, if permitted would form a significant addition. This covering letter also forms part of our objection.

3. Historically, the commercial core of Bishop's Stortford has grown up along the South Street/North Street axis, with the valley and flood plain of the Stort forming a significant visual and physical barrier between the mediaeval town and development to the East. The canalisation of the river encouraged industrial development along the riverside assisted by the creation of a number of mooring basins. When the basins were filled in they were replaced to some extent by low quality commercial buildings and the main course of the river was also altered to reduce the problem of flooding.

4. Redevelopment of these riverside sites could have presented a great opportunity to enhance the visual appeal and the character of Bishop's Stortford as an historic market town, and to make the river an important and attractive feature of the townscape. Instead, the opposite has happened. There has been no overall vision guiding the development of these sites and no recognition of the cumulative impact that the succession of developments would have on the character or the functioning of the town. For example, the Leisure Centre was provided with no car parking, on the grounds that the adjacent Riverside car park could be used, but subsequently, development of the Riverside was sanctioned with only private parking provided.

5. In appearance, the whole swathe of development from Tanners Wharf in the south, through the John Dyde and Leisure Centre developments to Jackson Square in the north has been characterised by overwhelming scale and height, use of inappropriate materials and a lack of visual appeal, which greatly detract from the character of our historic market town. They have failed to take any advantage of the great opportunity the River Stort might have presented to become an integral feature of the townscape.

6. These developments appear moreover to have been unsuccessful commercially. Tanners Wharf has been abandoned for over a year while incomplete and remains a derelict eyesore. The Leisure Centre has lost two of its restaurants and the bowling alley. It is doubtful whether the John Dyde flats have ever been fully occupied. And there are many vacant retail units in Jackson Square (including the whole of phase 2) and flats there also appear hard to shift. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these poor developments have contributed to the difficulties which Bishop's Stortford retailers face.

7. While it might be argued that the developments referred to above are outside the conservation area and were replacing poor quality development, the application now under consideration falls within the heart of the conservation area and any new development there needs to be treated with the greatest sensitivity. In our view, the proposals put forward do not begin to rise to the challenge of the site. In scale, types of use and overdevelopment, they show every sign of repeating the mistakes of previous developments. What is on offer is Jackson Square with different facades tacked on to the building blocks and a small reduction in height compared with Jackson Square, achieved by burying the car park underground. Taking account of the cumulative impact of previous developments we believe that this scheme would cause irreversible damage to the character of the town, without necessarily making any positive contribution to the commercial vitality of the main retail centre.

8. Our reasons for this conclusion are set out in the attached note of detailed objections. The Civic Federation would like to have the opportunity to address the meeting of the Development Control Committee which considers these proposals and any prior meeting of the Town Council.

9. I am copying this letter and attachment to the members of the Development Control Committee, other District councillors representing Bishop's Stortford, and to the Chief Executive of the Bishop's Stortford Town Council.

Yours Sincerely,

Richard Hannah
BSCF Chairman

Attachment: Causeway 4 Annex


Annex - Detailed Comments on Causeway Development Proposals  Top 

BISHOP'S STORTFORD CIVIC FEDERATION'S DETAILED COMMENTS ON OLD RIVER LANE/CAUSEWAY PLANNING AND CONSERVATION AREA CONSENT APPLICATIONS 3/10/1964/OP & 3/10/1965/LC

1. The following are the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation's detailed comments on the applications. Where relevant, they make reference to our People's Vision for Bishop's Stortford published after consultation with our members in November 2009. We believe that this People's Vision should guide consideration of these applications.

Public Involvement

2. Planning Policy Statement 1 (PPS1) makes it clear that the views and concerns of local people should be at the heart of the planning process, as follows

'The views of local people are an integral part of the planning process and the case for the community's voice to be heard is clear.'

'Community involvement should happen at the point at which people recognise that they have the potential to make a difference.'

3. The designs incorporating these proposals have, according to the Design and Access Statement, evolved over five years. Involvement of the public has included two presentations by the developers to the Civic Federation and a public exhibition spread over three days. The presentation materials used were wholly inadequate for the purpose, consisting only of artists' impressions, whose choice of views and perspectives appeared consciously designed to minimise the overwhelming height and bulk of the proposals. In an age of computer generated design, there is absolutely no excuse for failing to provide properly scaled plans and elevations. For a development of such major importance as this, a scale model would also have been appropriate. The scheme which is now the subject of this application has been the subject of no further public consultation at all. It appears that the main changes have been to reduce the height of some of the building blocks by a storey and to increase the number of apartments from 85 to 100.

4. We appreciate the extended period for making representations now agreed by EHDC. However, this is no substitute for a further public exhibition making use of display materials (including a three dimensional model) which would enable members of the Development Control Committee and the public to appreciate the full impact of the scheme for which permission is now sought. We do not regard extensive discussions with officers and unnamed members of the Council as an acceptable alternative to public consultation. We note from the statement of community involvement that half of all respondents did not think that the original draft proposals would benefit Bishop's Stortford (nearly twice as many as those who thought there would be a benefit). We would expect that the proportion of objectors would increase if their opinion could be based on more informative display materials. We do not think permission should be granted in the absence of a properly illustrated public exhibition.

Sensitivity of the Site

People's Vision

5. The site which is the subject of the present application is in the heart of the Bishop's Stortford conservation area. The part of it which is currently occupied by car parks, was given to the town in perpetuity by Mr Brazier, to be preserved as open space. Use for surface level car parking, while not visually appealing, does at least have the merit of preserving the openness which the benefactor intended. The open space between the castle and the steeply rising town centre reflects the history of that area of land which included the castle moat and the main course of the River Stort for most of its existence.

6. The developers, showing an insensitivity to rival that of other recent town centre developments, dismiss the significance of the site on the following lines

'The major site is not of historic sensitivity having undergone major change over the last fifty years.'

Comment – The most significant change was the building of the unsuitable Charringtons block and adjacent office block, one of which the developers propose to leave intact.

'The unlisted buildings to be demolished are of little or no merit.'

Comment – These include three attractive small homes which have the merit of not being flats, were completed only in 1995 and are a pleasing addition to the townscape.

'The site does not contribute to the significance of the Bishop's Stortford conservation area.'

Comment – This assertion appears to rely on the assumption that only development and not open space contributes to the significance of a conservation area. Policy BIS 10(c) in the adopted local plan says that the form of new development should improve and complete open areas in the townscape. It does not imply that the way to complete an open area is to build over it.

'The small number of views to and from Heritage assets beyond the site will be replaced by new views and juxtapositions of interest.'

Comment – The development will not replace any views but simply block those which now exist, in

particular, hiding the view of the steeply rising historic town centre from the original course of the Stort. Local Plan Policy BH6(d) in the adopted local plan requires important views within, into and out of the conservation area or its setting to be respected.

'It will enhance the conservation area by introducing an urban grain.'

Comment – The whole point of this part of the conservation area is that it has never had nor was it intended to have an urban grain. Its historic role has been to act as a flood plain and a barrier between the town and the castle. Replacing the open area with high buildings will entirely alter the character of the conservation area and leave the eastern side of the town centre barricaded in by a continuous panorama of unsuitable development. The proposals simply offer Jackson Square again with different facades tacked on. They therefore fail to meet the requirements of Local Plan Policy ENV1.

7. These concerns were echoed in Mr Steptoe's letter of 5 August which says

'it would appear that the scale of the development has limited regard to the character of North and Bridge Streets and as a result might be considered to be harmful to the sites immediate and wider setting and the Conservation Area.'

The marginal adjustments to building heights and layout of spaces made as a result of this comment do not in the Civic Federation's view overcome the basic objection that there is far too much development on a conservation area site whose basic openness should be preserved.

8. Mr Steptoe also made further critical comments about the proposed layout of the site as follows:

'Blocks A and D are considered to be sited too closely together resulting in a 'tunnelled' access from the site to the Link Road, which is of particular concern as this is the direct link from Old River Lane to Waytemore Castle, the castle grounds and the public open space beyond.

'Block C and Waitrose also suffer from a narrow width between the facades.

'The proposed public space between Coopers and Block A is encouraging… however, this width reduces and forms a bottle neck to the front of block B…

'Although a public square is proposed on the edge of the site adjacent to the Church… it would be preferable that a larger square is introduced…

'…the siting of block D does not take into account the sweep of Link Road…'

Although there has been some inadequate reduction in building heights, the proposals do not appear to address any of these other criticisms, set out above.

Commercial Impact on the Town

People's Vision

9. The Town Council has also produced a town plan based on the results of a survey to which some 4000 people responded. Shopping is dealt with in Chapter 7. Overall, 67% of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the shopping facilities available in the town and the plan noted that Bishop's Stortford is fortunate in that it has a variety of shops covering high street chains, long established family businesses and individual retailers. There were however several suggestions for improvement. Over 300 people thought there were too many coffee shops. Apart from individual shops, several comments suggested that the town would benefit from having a few larger stores such as Primark or Debenhams. However, the plan noted the 2008 East Herts retail study's observation that large retailers require a high footfall and a large catchment area.

10. Mr Steptoe's letter of 5 August notes that

'consideration will need to be given to the impact of the development on the vitality and viability of the existing town centre of Bishop's Stortford'

11. The Civic Federation recognise that people in the town aspire to have access to a wider range of shops, including perhaps another department store. However, we have a number of concerns about whether these proposals would actually produce such an outcome. Arguably, it is not lack of retail floorspace that is deterring new retailers from opening outlets. We have a number of vacant premises, ranging from the whole of the former Sainsbury's store to the whole of Jackson Square Phase 2 and some in Phase 1. The problem is more likely to be the issue identified in the retail study and the Town Council's plan. A town the size of Bishop's Stortford, including the settlements in the surrounding area, will not have a large enough catchment to generate the footfall which large retailers require. It is unrealistic to expect it to be able to offer the same size or range of outlets as Cambridge or Harlow on the north/south axis or Welwyn Garden City or Chelmsford on an east/west axis. If this development were to proceed but proved unable to let a significant number of units, the result would be extremely depressing to the commercial vitality of the town and might prejudice the prospects for other development opportunities such as the station goods yard.

12. The Federation are also concerned about the possible impact of a new department store on the adjacent long established businesses of Pearsons and Coopers. Together they offer a similar range of goods to that which might be expected from a new department store, but might struggle in the face of competition from an ostensibly new retail offer. If they were no longer able to trade as a result, the net increase in comparison goods floorspace would be much less than this scheme claims to offer and the town would be left with no greater range of choice than at present. Bishop's Stortford would simply have become more like the "cloned" high street which the people's vision wishes to avoid. Moreover, the applicants have provided no evidence that a national retailer is in the wings ready to occupy the proposed department store. At this stage in its gestation, the Jackson Square developers had at least got Sainsbury lined up to occupy the major retail space.

13. This application also includes a number of restaurants and cafés within it. At the last count, Bishop's Stortford had over 40 such outlets, and there are more to come in the Market Square and North Street. The similar units in Jackson Square Phase 2 all remain unlet. We do not need any more establishments of this kind – a view echoed in the Town Council's survey.

14. The application includes a proposal for a 110 bedroom hotel. We agree that the town needs a good quality hotel, and that some part of the site might be suitable for the purpose. However, permission has already been granted for a 72 bedroom hotel in South Street, and we do not believe the town would be able to support two of them. While it may be argued that this is a matter for commercial judgment it would be irresponsible to grant permission for a second facility when the existence of a possible competing hotel might blight the chances of either one achieving commercial success. Similar concerns exist about the need for or viability of the cinema element of the development.

15. The site which the developers own is not in need of regeneration, although the replacement of both office blocks by more attractive buildings occupying the same footprint would be welcome. By contrast, the southern end of the town centre is in urgent need of regeneration as the number of empty units in South Street and Jackson Square testify. Converting the development site into a new retail hub, will serve only to hasten the degradation of South Street, to the further disadvantage of retailers there.

16. Policy BIS 10 in the adopted local plan identifies three potential town centre sites for redevelopment. One site, the redeveloped Jackson Square, has been completed, with apparently indifferent commercial success. Only the John Dyde part of the goods yard site has been redeveloped as flats and EHDC are now reviewing the development brief for the remainder of the site. The Mill site has been the subject of a development brief but the present owners have indicated they have no intention of relocating their business which is a major town centre employer. BIS10 makes no reference to the application site being suitable for development. Given the length of time over which the proposals have evolved there would have been ample opportunity to have included a reference to such intentions in the local plan before its adoption. It is therefore surprising that Mr Steptoe's letter of 5 August says that there is no objection in principle to development of the site, and in particular to retail/hotel/cinema uses since the site is used for none of these at the moment and no such development is contemplated here in the local plan.

Access and Transport

People's Vision

17. In the Town Council's plan, traffic congestion was rated as the second most important concern of respondents (after the condition of roads and pavements) in the transport section (Chapter 10). Moreover, a point which apparently emerged from the 2008 retail study was that shoppers are deterred from visiting Bishop's Stortford by traffic congestion and the difficulty of finding convenient parking. This is probably particularly true of Bishop's Stortford residents, who know how bad conditions are in practice. The transport assessment is therefore particularly relevant to this application

18. Whatever their aesthetic merits, surface level car parks are by far the most popular with shoppers. People who are mobility impaired either by carrying shopping and/or children's buggies or by physical condition and thus needing disabled transport of some kind do not have to negotiate a change of level, and feel more secure than in a covered car park, whether multi storey or, worse still, underground. The Waitrose and adjoining public car parks are particularly popular for that reason. The Waitrose car park has the added attraction of enabling users to perform other errands in the town without the need for a parking permit, provided that they buy a sufficient value of goods in Waitrose. Putting that facility permanently underground will diminish still further the attractions of Bishop's Stortford as a shopping centre. The commercial health of the town may never fully recover from this further damage caused by the wrong sort of development in the wrong place. Moreover, given the widespread dislike of underground parking, such a development is bound to increase pressure on surface, on street parking, particularly in the Chantry area. East Herts Council's continuing piecemeal approach to parking control in the town means we can have no confidence of an early solution to this threat.

19. A particular concern is the absence of any temporary provision during the construction phase of the underground car park. In the case of Jackson Square, temporary provision included a park and ride service which construction workers were required to use. It surprising to see that no temporary provision of any kind has been agreed here. If shoppers decide that Bishop's Stortford is not a destination worth navigating during development, they will not return once development has been completed.

20. At a more detailed level, the proposed service access to blocks B and C is clearly unsatisfactory. Water Lane is quite unsuitable as a service road, being narrow, lined with historic buildings and incorporating a right angled turn. The applicants acknowledge that it could not be used by HGVs. In fact it should not be used for servicing at all other than to existing properties. We also wonder where the intended waste compacter will be sited and what effect that will have on existing properties. The proposal does, therefore, provide a practical example of how overdeveloped the site would be – these two blocks simply cannot be serviced effectively.

21. The transport assessment itself reaches conclusions which are remote from the everyday experience of people living in the town. These include the conclusions (in para 8.6.8 of the transport assessment) that the proposed development would have no significant impact on the surrounding highway network and that (para 6.5.1 of the transport section of the environmental assessment) that the delays and congestion arising from site preparation, earthworks and construction would be imperceptible. The conclusions appear to be based in part on the assumption that that since Bishop's Stortford's share of the retail market is declining, all that the development would do is to retain the town's market share and thus simply restore the status quo ante in terms of traffic congestion. This specious line of reasoning might only have some merit if the percentage of the population with access to a car had reached saturation point – it hasn't – and if the retail market was static – but presumably the developers are expecting the overall market to grow, and hence a constant market share will still generate more traffic.

22. In practice, this appears to be a typical Herts Highways assessment which looks only at individual developments in isolation rather than their cumulative effect and concludes that they will never cause a sufficiently serious congestion problem to raise an objection. In this case, the only committed developments which the developers have been asked to take into account are Tanners Wharf (currently derelict) and the South Street hotel permission. This means that that the additional traffic from the station goods yard and the ASR's, if developed, and from developments in progress in Uttlesford have not been factored in. It is also unclear what if any assumptions have been made about implementation of the Bishop's Stortford transportation strategy – has credit been taken for implementation of the strategy without allowing for the developments which the strategy was supposed to facilitate? Moreover the strategy assumed no new or additional development on this site and if this scheme were now to go ahead, it would invalidate the conclusions the strategy reached about the ability of the transport network to support development elsewhere in the town. And, as on previous occasions, traffic counts and forecasts do not take account of the weekday afternoon school run – assuming that the afternoon peak traffic starts at 16.30. Even though the recession has curbed traffic growth, it can be expected to resume, and the experience of people living in the town in many locations does not accord with the level of congestion which the transport model claims is occurring.

23. There are further reasons for doubting the reliability of the transport assessment. Firstly, the full impact of the Jackson Square development is unknown because it is still significantly under-occupied. Secondly, the network of roads leading into Bishop's Stortford is not capable of any capacity enhancement other than the palliative of integrated traffic signal control. The approach roads to the town centre are at capacity for significant amounts of the day. Thirdly, the development would add 16000m2 of retail space, a 110 bedroom hotel and 100 flats to the site. Only three houses and one largely empty office block would be lost, meaning that the whole of the development would be generating additional traffic. Fourthly, the road network is very fragile and even mild perturbations can rapidly lead to gridlock, as the recent works at the junction between the Link Road and Rye Street have illustrated. Finally it is far from obvious that the additional 270 car parking spaces to be provided would be sufficient to meet the extra demand, with traffic as a result causing additional congestion while looking for somewhere to park and blocking the Link Road/Bridge Street junction. We have not forgotten the fiasco of the regular gridlock in the Jackson Square car park caused by Herts Highways insistence on a particular layout. That appears to have been alleviated by introducing a second exit point, but this proposal will offer no opportunities for second thoughts if, as we suspect, insistence on making the Link Road the only access point to the car park turns out to be a mistake.

24. Finally under this heading, the dismissal of the impact of construction traffic during site clearance and preparation is clearly wrong. The period forecast for this work lasts for 36 weeks, with 50 movements per day from weeks 0 – 8 and 24 – 36 and 100 movements per day during the intervening period. This implies 5 – 6 movements per hour in the two outer periods with double that number in between, the additional 50 per day crossing the Link Road from the construction site to the flood compensation area. It is argued that with flows of 10000 to 12000 vehicles per day, this addition will be imperceptible.

25. This statement ignores the fact that current site access is restricted by the coverage of the HGV ban in Bishop's Stortford. Currently the only HGV's allowed to use the area are those making deliveries. 32 tonne 4 axle Tipper Trucks are typically used to clear construction sites, and these are among the most damaging to the fabric of the road. They do not enter the area at present. The intended exit routes are Hadham Road and Rye Street, both narrow roads lined with historic buildings. They are quite unsuitable for this type of traffic over a 36 week period, and property owners along the roads can expect to suffer damage if this type of traffic were to be permitted over such an extended period.

Housing

People's Vision

  • 'Housing developments must focus on traditional family homes with gardens to protect the social fabric or our community – no more flats.'

26. The Town Council's plan deals with housing in Chapter 3. Its first conclusion is that the overwhelming majority of respondents were seriously concerned by the number of flats in the town centre. With the exception of the three houses mentioned earlier this site is not zoned for housing in the adopted local plan. If developers and planners should have learned one thing from recent years, it is that Bishop's Stortford neither wants nor needs more small one and two bed roomed flats in the town centre, particularly when, prospectively, there could be several hundred more to come in the station goods yard. We were therefore surprised to read in the letter of 5 August from Mr Steptoe that there was no objection in principle to residential development on the site. There is no need for such development to meet Bishop's Stortford's housing target and no provision for it in the plan. Moreover another block of half empty flats in the town centre would cast blight over any development which did take place. Under no circumstances should further residential development on the site be permitted.

Environment

27. The Town Council's plan also deals with the environment in Chapter 3 which notes a comment that 'green land also seems fair game for incessant construction… there is a seeming lack of vision at the expense of making quick money by building on every available square foot of land.' We are not qualified to comment on the hydrological impact of the altering the levels of the Meads to enable the area to become a flood compensation area. Nor have we any impression of what it would be like after the work is done. What is clear however is that this work would not be necessary if the existing car parks were left untouched as we suggest.

Local Policies

28. The Civic Federation's vision for this site says the following

  • A sympathetically styled office block should be provided within the footprint of the demolished offices.

Nothing in these proposals causes us to alter this part of the People's Vision, except to agree that within that constraint, other uses for the new buildings might be acceptable, subject to the caveats above about the possible impact of alternative uses on existing established businesses in the town.

29. The site is not zoned for retail or residential development in the adopted local plan even though, given the length of gestation of these proposals, there would have been ample opportunity to propose such zoning before the plan was adopted. The local plan represents the Council's policies for the development of Bishop's Stortford.

30. Section 38(6) of the Planning and Compensation Act 2004 states that

'If regard is to be had to the development plan for the purpose of any determination to be made under the Planning Acts the determination must be made in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

No material considerations have been advanced as to why this application should be determined other than in accordance with the local plan. The local plan could have, but does not make any provision for these proposals and permission should accordingly be refused.

Conclusion

31. In summary, we believe that permission for the development proposals and for the conservation area demolition consent should be refused or the following reasons

BSCF December 2010