Councillors ignored advice by kicking out a six storey student accommodation scheme which their officers claimed would be ‘beneficial to the local area’ but they felt didn’t respect the character of the neighbourhood.
Watkin Jones wanted to build a 77-bed managed complex on Hunter Street car park at the back of historic properties in King Street in Chester city centre .
But Cheshire West and Chester Council’s planning committee voted down the application which had been ‘called in’ for a committee decision by city ward member and Labour council leader Cllr Samantha Dixon who was strongly against.
Watkin Jones planning director Iain Smith thanked council officers for their support, saying they had described the development as ‘a strong and confident building that can sit comfortably in the area’ with a ‘strong corner feature’.
As the developer and operator of two existing managed student schemes in Victoria Road and off City Road, his company fully appreciated the ‘sensitivities’ around student accommodation and the impact 'uncontrollable' houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) have on surrounding residents.
He asked: “Where should students in Chester live? It’s commonly recognised that managed accommodation is the answer as it has a continuous management presence and members of the community have a direct point of contact to address any concerns.”
While there was no policy requirement to prove a demand for student accommodation, Mr Smith argued 8,000 students could not currently access managed sites.
The rooms had been designed as studios in response to the preferences of the growing numbers of postgraduate students, both international and later years, he said. The appearance of the building was intended to fit with the new cultural centre and plans for the Northgate Development .
Opponent Faye Mustill, chairman of King Street Residents Association, recognised the plans had been modified to make the building more ‘visually acceptable’, but added: “That said, residents are diametrically opposed to student accommodation as evidenced by the 60 letters of objection.”
Mrs Mustill cited the fact CWaC had already adopted a policy aimed at curbing the number of HMOs in their neighbourhood, which comes in effect next month, because of the ‘sheer number of students’ already in the area and the ‘disruption caused by some of those students’. If approved, residents would be outnumbered by students almost two to one.
She also questioned whether there was a need for more student accommodation given reports of smaller managed accommodation blocks being only 50% full, in addition to some smaller unoccupied private HMOs – with planning consent already granted for a further 1,000 more student beds, including over 500 at the nearby Linenhall car park site .
Cllr Dixon, who would have supported general residential apartments, said: “Ask yourselves, is this the listed building of the future? No, it isn’t. It isn’t needed. It isn’t wanted and it isn’t good enough. This application should be refused because it compromises the ambition of the One City Plan, as adopted by the council, which states that the city should be first and foremost for its residents and deliver the highest quality of life for the people who live there.”
Fiona Hore, senior manager, planning and strategic transport, reminded the meeting the council cabinet, which is chaired by Cllr Dixon, had decided not to include a policy that could take into account whether student housing was needed so this could not be considered. She commented: “It’s the market that will decide whether such accommodation gets built.”
Committee member Cllr Jill Houlbrook (Con, Upton ) argued: “It’s the wrong development in the wrong place. We are endeavouring to have the new Northgate Development. This is a 77-student accommodation block next to an area where we want to encourage people to eat, go to the theatre, be part of the community, to enjoy themselves and to look at what wondrous buildings we’ve got in the city.
“We’ve got the wonderful theatre being developed just up the road and now we are going to put what to me looks like a monstrous concrete-brick block just further down the road from it.”
Members rejected the scheme on grounds that by reason of its design, scale and massing it didn’t respect the local character of the area and failed to conserve or enhance the conservation area.