By Grainne Cuffe, local democracy reporter
A Lewisham planning committee approved an application for a house to be turned into flats despite members’ concerns the proposals were against policy.
On Thursday (May 20) the committee considered an application to convert a two-storey Victorian house by the junction of Forest Hill Road and Canonbie Road into three flats, as well as to build another two storey building beside it.
The new building would also be made up of three flats, with the ground floor a three-bed aimed at families.
Eight objections were submitted – locals raised concerns about loss of privacy, overlooking, increased need for parking, overdevelopment of the site, and pressure on amenities.
But the main issue of contention, also raised by objectors, one of whom spoke at the meeting, was that the conversion could be against DM Policy 3.
The aim of the policy is to ensure that family homes are not done away with in favour of flats.
It states that the council should refuse planning permission “except where environmental conditions mean that the single-family house is not suitable for family accommodation” due to “adjacent to noise generating or other environmentally unfriendly uses” or “lack of external amenity space suitable for family use”.
But council planning officers said they did not believe the conversion was against DMP3 “since the proposal includes the re-provision of a generously sized family unit”.
Neil Gaskin, architect and co-founder of the applicant Sketch Architects, told the committee: “The aim of this policy is to ensure that family units in the borough are not lost and replaced by substandard dwellings which do not provide a high standard of internal space and amenity.
“It was therefore an important design driver to incorporate a new family dwelling which provides new spaces which are more suited to the use of a modern family within this new building.
“This is reflected by the newly proposed three-bedroom, ground floor unit located within the plan.
“The planning department agrees that this new unit is considered to be of better quality than the layout of the existing building.
“This unit also has direct and sole access to the rear garden and use of the onsite garage.”
He also said the house was “dilapidated” and that there were concerns it had already been used as a HMO because there were two kitchens installed.
However, Cllr James Rathbone said the policy seemed to be “very strict”.
“The wording does not seem to be as permissive as the officer reading and I’m worried that in our desire to increase the number of units we are stretching the policy beyond what can be justified.
“It’s not a question of me disliking the application – I personally don’t really have any problem with it.
“It’s that the objector in raising DMP3 and whether or not it’s being interpreted properly […] I think they have a very strong argument and my worry is that on any appeal, if we granted this approval, we would likely lose, simply because I don’t see the language as being sufficiently permissive,” he said.
Cllr Rathbone added: “I’m not persuaded that there is sufficient noise being generated adjacently and I’m not persuaded that there is a lack of external amenity.”
James Hughes, development management team leader at the council, said that the legal officer considers “that we do have scope to interpret the policy”.
He added that if the committee approved the application the “neighbour wouldn’t be able to challenge the decision” unless he went to court.
“I accept that as a councillor and committee you may take a different view.
“The fundamental underlying point as to what we’re seeking to achieve with respect to the sub-division is consistent with policy.
“All I can do is tell you that if the committee were to approve there wouldn’t be any sort of appeal mechanism […]
“If we were to approve, the neighbour wouldn’t be able to challenge the decision, except by way of the courts,” Mr Hughes said.
Cllr Rathbone said the policy was “incredibly clearly written”.
The legal officer said the “underlying aims of the DMP3” were “sufficiently broad to be considered met” and that planning policies are not interpreted with the “same rigour to the grammar and wording of policies as you might a legal contract”.
“Of course, it is open to you to find otherwise,” he said.
Before voting against the proposal, Cllr Suzannah Clarke said she was worried about the precedent it would set if the application was approved.
“I needed clarification on how we were going to go forward in the future because I believe this is quite a big decision and could set a precedent for future applications that may not be as viable,” she said.
Cllr Rathbone also voted against the application.
“My real concern here is that DMP3 has not been interpreted correctly and this permission is contrary to policy,” he said.
The five remaining committee members voted in favour of the plans, subject to two conditions which would ensure there was a privacy screen on the balcony overlooking the neighbour’s garden and that acoustic installation would be installed in the shared wall.
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