An appeal is being planned after Reigate & Banstead Borough Council turned down an application to convert a vacant office block in Reigate town centre into 46 flats.
The council’s decision, in September, contrasts with its approval in March of an application for 24 flats at the same site, Vale House.
The difference? Not the number of flats, but the fact that the Environment Agency raised no flooding objections on the first application, but did on the second.
Both applications were made under national permitted development rules that make it easier to convert offices into flats, and which give councils only limited powers to block applications.
On the first application, for 24 flats, the Environment Agency said it had no objection on flooding grounds, but that the council would need to be satisfied on the escape route out of the basement car park, which flooded in December 2013.
Reigate & Banstead accordingly ruled in March that prior approval was not needed, given that there had been no official objections on flooding, contamination or transport and highways. The creation of a satisfactory emergency flood plan was included as as condition.
This time the Environment Agency did object, on the basis that converting the property from office to residential would change the vulnerability of the site. The location sits within ‘Flood Zone 3b’ with an estimated risk of flooding once in every 20 years.
In a flood risk assessment commissioned by the applicant, and revised during the course of the application, consultants said that the residential parts of the building would not flood, and that there was also an escape route from the basement car park.
However, the Environment Agency (EA) maintained its objection.
Reviewing the application, the Reigate & Banstead planning officer noted: “Notwithstanding the EA did not raise objection to the previous application, the council must base the assessment of this application on the current comments and therefore with sustained objection from the EA I shall be recommending the application for refusal”.
The council’s refusal, issued on 7 September, said: “The development proposes to increase the vulnerability at this site from Office (Less Vulnerable) to Residential (More Vulnerable) within Flood Zone 3. It has not been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the local planning authority that the impacts of flooding would result in a safe living environment for future residents in particular safe access and egress from the site.”
The officer did note that the 46 flats would come with a minimum of 56 car parking spaces, which would have been acceptable from a parking perspective.
Asked about the refusal, Richard Conroy, associate director at Progress Planning, the agent on the second application, said that an appeal to the planning inspectorate is being prepared.
Conroy also said that conflicting decisions create uncertainty for developers, given the need to commit finances, and particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
He also noted that conversion schemes provide a use for office buildings which are in reduced demand because of the pandemic.
Demand for housing in the borough as a whole is high, with the council’s annual Housing Delivery Monitor saying, as of 31 March, that the average (median) property price is more than 12 times the average annual income.
In contrast to new builds, changes of use from office to residential under the national permitted development rules are not subject to affordable housing requirements.
Vale House was previously occupied by the Just financial services group, until they ended their lease in July. Just is still in Reigate, in two other buildings that they own and occupy in Bancroft Road.
Image credits: top image – Life Less Ordinary website, bottom image – reigate.uk