COUNCILLORS performed a dramatic U-turn on Tuesday night and granted a controversial planning application. The heart of Hitchin town centre will be the site of 140 new residential units and underground parking for 175 cars after councillors, at a high pre
COUNCILLORS performed a dramatic U-turn on Tuesday night and granted a controversial planning application.
The heart of Hitchin town centre will be the site of 140 new residential units and underground parking for 175 cars after councillors, at a high pressure meeting of North Hertfordshire District Council's Hitchin area committee, voted in favour of an application by Stephen Howard Homes.
They will be built on the Brookers Yard and Suzuki and Peter Fish premises off Paynes Park.
Only minutes earlier, the same councillors had voted to reject a recommendation made to them by a council planning officer that they should grant the application.
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After voting to disagree with this proposal the councillors were left in limbo - the only solution being that they attend an appeal in January without the support of a variety of planning and architectural experts who were not opposed to the plans.
The councillors then decided to vote on whether to grant the application. They voted 7 to 5 in favour.
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However, despite this decision, concerns were voiced by councillors that if they did not accept this proposal they could be faced with other unattractive applications in the future.
Speaking at the meeting, Hitchin Highbury Councillor Lawrence Oliver said: "It might be this proposal or something further down the line which could be slightly worse."
Chairman of the committee Cllr Judi
Billing added: "I'm sad that we have to approve things solely because they are not really bad rather than because they are really good."
The decision left many onlookers shocked and many walked out of the meeting in disgust.
Speaking later, a spokesman for watchdog body Hitchin Forum said it was "a deeply disappointing decision on a site which is the most historic part of Hitchin."
The spokesman said: "The manner in which the decision was taken must be unprecedented but the pressure put on the Hitchin councillors was breathtaking.
"He (the applicant's spokesman) told councillors that every expert was against them, from English Heritage to the county architect panel, to the council's own conservation officer, consultant architect and planning officers.
"The message to councillors was 'if you go against officer advice, you will be alone at the appeal inquiry and don't expect a professional planning inspector to disagree with us professionals'.
The spokesman continued: "There has been tremendous community opposition to this totally inappropriate development proposal.
"However, we have been overruled by a planning system which is not only heavily skewed against us, but which favours developers seeking to maximise profits."
Speaking in support of the application, the director of Brookers, Doug Brooker, said that he was pleased that the long period of uncertainty was over.
He said: "Derelict warehousing and trading areas are not very attractive and surely better used for much needed housing especially in the town centre.
"An influx of population to the heart of the town has to be of benefit to all the retailers and traders operating in the town."
BBR Architects, acting on behalf of Stephen Howard Homes, had not responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.
# An application to build 12 dwellings on land at 63 Walsworth Road was also granted at Tuesday night's meeting.