Controversial plans to demolish an historic Eastbourne building have been refused by town planners despite warnings there were not sufficient grounds to do so.
Eastbourne Borough Council planners considered a prior approval application to demolish Kempston in Granville Road on Tuesday night (February 26).
In planning law, a developer can apply to demolish a building under permitted development rights (meaning they do not need planning permission), with planning authorities only able to intervene in strictly limited circumstances.
But, after a sometimes heated discussion, the committee decided to refuse the demolition on the grounds the building’s owner had deliberately allowed it to fall into disrepair through long term neglect – a claim the developer denies.
The claims of neglect were first raised by ward councillor Robert Smart (Con. – Meads), who said: “The owners of Kempston have shown an outrageous contempt for this council and Eastbourne residents.
“Twice you have rejected applications for demolition and redevelopment, both times against officers’ recommendations.
“Now at the very time we are in a consultation period for a long overdue extension of the College Conservation Area, which includes Kempston, the owners are moving to pre-empt inclusion.
“[Planning law] says demolition is not permitted if the building has been rendered unsafe or otherwise uninhabitable by the actions or inactions of the owners.
“The evidence is there in spades.”
Cllr Smart said he had spoken to several former residents of the building and had collected written testimonies, claiming the landlords had persistently ignored requests to make repairs.
He also said the council had itself issued an improvement notice to the building’s owners in 2016 and two flats within had been considered as uninhabitable since then.
But the committee also heard from Marie Nagy, a planning agent acting on behalf of the building’s owner, who said claims of neglect were ‘completely unfounded’.
She said: “In order to try and frustrate our lawful right to demolish the building, it is extremely vexing that a very small number of people have sought to raise again the completely unfounded accusations that we have wilfully neglected the building and in some way rendered it uninhabitable.
“Referring back to improvement notices issued in 2016/17 as evidence of neglect has no credibility whatsoever and your officers have consistently advised you of that fact.
“We have set out previously how much we have spent on the building. Taking the very recent record as a snapshot, this totalled just under £80,000 between 2014 and 2018. We could have put that money elsewhere if we were wilfully neglecting the property.”
Ms Nagy also argued that no further improvement notices had been issued and the council had recently attempted to ensure a former tenant could remain in the building. This showed the building was not considered to be uninhabitable, she said.
She also said the owners had taken ‘significant steps’ to protect the building since it became vacant, including security shutters to protect against break ins and vandalism.
Ms Nagy said: “I expect an appeal inspector will take a very dim view of any attempt to argue that we have wilfully neglected the building at any time.
“References to the draft conservation area consultation, that is underway, are also irrelevant. Our initial review of the documents means we will be making very significant representations and you have a very long way to go to finalising that review.
“I can understand you are mindful of the local elections in May and perhaps be tempted to make the popular decision but we have throughout this process sought to work positively with Eastbourne Borough Council.”
Before reaching a unanimous decision to refuse, planning committee chairman Jim Murray said: “Cllr [Janet] Coles and myself visited the site during the first application, when there were still residents in the building.
“We spoke to those residents and they said the building had been left in a poor state of repair and the owners were not looking after it in they way they were hoping for.
“Cllr Smart also has evidence of this as well, so I would advise the committee to go down that route of wilful neglect and we will refuse the demolition on basis of wilful neglect.”
Before the vote, a senior planning advisor warned the committee that a decision to refuse would be challenged by the applicant, leaving the council open to a claim for costs at appeal.
Planning officers had also previously advised the committee it had no sustainable grounds for preventing demolition.