sunday telegraph

The Sunday Telegraph - 14 July 2002 - House & Home, page 17

Tunbridge Wells is disgusted

The town famous for its retired colonels and forthright views has found a new target-the proposed redevelopment of its old telephone exchange into flats. Ross Clark unravels a tangled tale of angry residents and officialdom.

The first that residents of York Road, Tunbridge Wells, knew of a large redevelopment scheme in their street was when an 82-year-old neighbour came knocking on their doors one evening late in 1999. Had they seen a little notice fluttering on a lamp-post a couple of hundred yards away in Church Road announcing a planning application by Crest Homes? The town's disused telephone exchange was to be demolished and replaced by 42 flats, arranged in three, four and five-storey blocks facing onto York Road.

What happened next is an example of how Britain's grinding planning system can consume years of effort, gobble up a small forest in bureaucracy, and still not please any of the people it is designed to serve. Gordon Brown, eager to build more housing onto brown-field sites in the South East, may find it won't be as easy as all that.

On the face of it, it is hard to imagine how anything could fail to be an improvement on the old telephone exchange. A steel and glass monolith dating from 1962, it was put up in the centre of the town, a few hundred yards from the Pantiles, with no regard whatsoever to the existing streetscape of three-storey townhouses and a church designed by Decimus Burton.

It wasn't the principle of development that offended local residents, but the execution of it - a wasted opportunity, they felt, on such an important site. "The proposed buildings looked like something off Bournemouth seafront," says one York Road resident, Daniel Bech. They were also concerned about the density of the scheme, the loss of a row of semi-rnature trees on York Road and the fact that all traffic to and from the flats would be channeled through their narrow, one way street instead of Church Road, a major thoroughfare on the other side of the site.

They were relieved when, on January 27, 2000 - within the eight-week time frame which the Government sets as a target for planning decisions - Tunbridge Wells Borough Council rejected the scheme. "The proposal would have a significant adverse impact on the character and appearance of the conservation area by virtue of its scale, massing, roofscape, form, spacial characteristics, elevational treatment and building lines," wrote the council to Crest Homes. The proposal would also "have an adverse impact on the setting of listed buildings in Church Road".

The expectation, says Bech, was that Crest Homes would choose a new architect and come back with a very different scheme which took into account me council's decision. Yet the new design, unveiled in July 2000, was only slightly modified. Far from reducing the scale of the development, the new plans threw in an extra flat. "An entire extra block appeared on the new plans," says Bech, "and while the new drawings appeared to show that the trees would be saved, if yo.u look at where the trees actually are, there would be no room for them."

Once again, the borough council rejected the planning application. It wasn't fair, says Stephen Stone, the managing director of Crest's parent company. Crest Nicholson Residential. "The council's planning officers had been quite supportive of our plans. They wanted something modern and they wanted us to comply with the Government's guidance on housing density. But when it came before the planning committee, members said they didn't like the modern design and the density was too high. Councils employ professional planners but unfortunately councillors don't always heed their advice and get embroiled in local politics."

Crest duly appealed to the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol, at which point the residents formed a protest group, the Telephone House Neighbours' Association. The proverbial Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells entered the internet age: the association set up a web-site on which it has placed an astonishing 2,400 pages of correspondence and general documentation and for which it claims 50 to 60 hits a day.

For the town's retired colonels who have yet to get online it also distributed 3,500 leaflets around neighbouring streets, and received 800 replies supporting the campaign against the development. The association sent a 200-page submission to the Planning Inspectorate, which agreed to that staple of modern life, a public inquiry. But ultimately inspectors were unimpressed by the objections and in July 2001 they allowed the appeal, thus granting Crest Homes planning permission.

Now it was the turn of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to moan. "Not only did we lose the appeal, the inspectorate awarded costs against us," says chief executive Rodney Stone (who is no relation of Crest's Stephen Stone). "There was deemed to have been a lack of clarity in our reasons for rejecting planning permission. Members of the planning committee thought it was legitimate to object to issues such as the loss of trees and the density of the development, but our planning officers didn't.
"In an area where there are a lot of very articulate people it is very difficult for planning committees to balance policy that they might know is right with strong local views."

In March this year [2002], in yet another twist to the story, Crest Homes decided to pull out of the development and sell the site. While the Telephone House Neighbours' Association was left wondering whether its efforts had borne fruit after all, the new owners of the site, CALA Homes, insist they will proceed with the existing plans and are expected to start work in August [2002].

Will the Telephone House Neighbours' Association be campaigning again?
After all, the Government has promised to "streamline" the planning process in a Green Paper issued earlier this year which suggests that local residents should be consulted at a much earlier stage of development, instead of being presented with a planning application as a fait accompli.

The council and developer are in negotiations to fine-tune the draft schedule of works prior to its formal submission. At that point, the neighbours will be consulted again and will have their views taken into account if the council feels they are justified.

"We have been on this for two and a half years," says Daniel Bech. "Each time we throw something at them, they throw something back at us. We still hope to find a developer who will do what local knowledge dictates."


Comment 16 July 2002

Leonard Price
4 Royal Chase, Tunbridge Wells, TN4 8AY

As a Tunbridge Wells Councillor and at the relevant time Chairman of the Council’s Western Area Planning Committee, may I add to Ross Clark’s excellent article about the Telephone House Development in your Review Section on Sunday 14 July 2002.

The Telephone House Neighbours learned that no matter what White or Green Paper is produced by this government promising the early involvement of residents, the planning process remains wholly undemocratic.

Officers of the Local Government advise Councillors. In this particular case planning officers recommended the scheme which was similar to the one they had previously rejected. They continued to follow their line after Members unanimously turned down the second application.

The Appeal Inspector, a civil servant, an unelected body, overruled the decision of my committee. In his decision he misdirected himself in considering a Draft Local Plan, which had not even been in the public domain when the Public Inquiry took place.

No wonder, residents have lost trust in the planning system which allows extremely high density (140 units per hectare or 57 units per acre), the loss of the few trees that exist in the town, overlooking existing houses and not making a genuine attempt at landscaping on the site.

high density DENSITY - Cramming ? - Lifestyle ?
2003 - CALA Homes' high-density development of Telephone House, Tunbridge Wells

telegraph Recommended reading for the Homebuyer, by Ross Clark

contents The Telephone House Neighbours Association, Tunbridge Wells
The aims are to heighten peoples' awareness and concern for the development on Telephone House site, Church Road / York Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.