Victory for residents over bid to add two storeys to Grange Court flats block
Bristol residents battling to stop two extra storeys being built on top of their block of flats have won their first battle.
City councillors voted nine to one against what they said was an “unusually cruel” application to extend the three-storey block of flats on Grange Court Road.
London-based developer ERE, which owns the freehold on the building, had sought prior approval for the works in a test of new planning law introduced in August.
The legislation allows developers to add up to two extra storeys to residential buildings without seeking full planning permission, as long as certain requirements are met.
But three local councillors, horrified at what the extension would mean for the more than 30 people living in the 1970s block of flats, sent the application to a planning committee.
Young and old dialled into the virtual meeting on Wednesday, November 11 to express their anger and anguish at the threat to their and their loved ones’ existence.
Residents, many of whom had bought the leasehold to see out their retirement, said the plans felt like a “shot in the back”.
They said they treasured their homes as a haven of peace and safety and felt “totally devastated” that their remaining years could be “shattered” by a remote developer who had failed to make any sort of contact.
As well as the disruption during construction, residents said they feared their lives would be irreparably changed by the added noise and “unbearable” parking that two extra storeys, with 14 extra three-bedroom flats and up to 70 extra people, would bring.
Grange Court sits between Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze opposite a school, a church and bowling club.
Residents first learned about the plans from a notice on a lamppost outside the property.
They were among 23 people who spoke against the application last night and 268 people who lodged objections, including Labour MP for Bristol North West Darren Jones.
The developer did not make an appearance at the meeting but sent a planning consultant, John Cocking, who argued there was “no good reason to withhold prior approval”.
“The application before you responds positively to new legislation intended to boost the housing supply and the local economy in the wake of coronavirus,” Mr Cocking said.
“The legislation only allows the local planning authority to consider eight criteria.
“Other matters cannot lawfully be taken into account.”
The eight criteria include the effect of the development on parking, the look of the building, and factors such as overlooking, privacy and loss of light for residents and neighbours.
They do not include the wellbeing of existing residents.
Bristol City Council officers, who recommended prior approval be given, said they sympathised with residents “on a personal level” but the application ticked all the legal boxes set out in the permitted development legislation.
A planning officer said they found the development would not cause any “significant” harm for any of the eight criteria listed, but conceded their assessment took into account a parking survey conducted by the developer.
But Conservative councillors for Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, Steve Smith and Geoff Gollop, told the committee the survey was “flawed” and said the roads around Grange Court were already “saturated”.
Once the extension was completed, the building would stand at five storeys and 14m high and would “overwhelm” the neighbours, Councillor Gollop added.
Committee members heard the plans lacked necessary provisions for fire and safety, a lift and external structural support, but were told they could not legally take these facts into account.
If the council’s building control team found they were needed, the developer would have to revise the plans and come back to the council for prior approval, they heard.
Despite the legal arguments, members of the planning committee overwhelmingly sided with residents.
Conservative, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat members alike said it would be a “mistake” to give approval for an extension which would worsen parking and look “ugly” and “severely” affect residents’ lives.
Labour councillor Ollie Mead said: “It seems an usually cruel thing to do to vulnerable residents, whether they’re elderly or whether they’re with a young family – to put them through this when they own their own homes.”
The planning committee voted seven to one against giving approval, before expressing their intention to refuse the application on the grounds of its potential impact on residents, traffic, and the look of the building.
They voted nine to one to defer their official rejection, saying they were “minded to refuse”.
In accordance with council policy, they must do this to give officers time to draft wording that will stand up at appeal.
Councillor Smith said: “I’m delighted for the residents that the committee has emphatically rejected this application.
“This was the result of a huge campaign involving hundreds of people writing statements and it just shows that the power of a community working together is as strong as ever.”
Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporting Service
How could such a development be proposed? Retired construction consultant Robert Murphy writes:
When Permitted Development legislation came into force around five years ago it was fairly obvious that it was very badly worded and had numerous loopholes. Many people realised that it would be relatively easy to build a “monstrosity” which would be out of keeping with its surroundings but which would nevertheless comply with the rules. Permitted development was further extended in 2020 to allow two additional storeys on an existing detached house.
The planning system is now wide open to abuse by unscrupulous developers and/or people who have no consideration for the impact on their neighbours lives.
Residents of the flats can object on planning grounds but the odds are stacked against them as the developer will have experienced people and resources to back up their application.
In addition to planning requirements the building must meet certain technical standards but unlike planning applications, building regulation applications are not in the public domain. Building regulation information is regarded as the applicant's “personal data” even though it may impact on other people and/or their homes. This is extremely unfair and the situation needs to change.
The people behind the Permitted Development legislation have apparently not considered the practical and human issues involved in adding two storeys to an existing building.