Statement by David Middleton, Confederation of St Andrews Residents’ Associations (CSARA) Chair:
The North East Planning Committee’s decision is remarkable, not only because it was passed with no dissenting voices, but because it strongly asserted the need for development to respect the existing natural resources, such as trees and wildlife. Assumptions made in the planning report was that it was acceptable for the environment to be degraded to facilitate development , even when no discernible social benefit could be demonstrated for the proposal. That this is no longer an acceptable approach is hopefully be an issue which will be absorbed by the Planning Service, now under the same management as the economic development function of the council.
Up to now the approach of this combined administration seems to have been been that all development is good. The Abbey Park decision places human well-being and the protection of the environment above that of commercial gain. It should set the pattern for all future planning decisions.
In a landmark decision made against the planning officers’s recommendation, North East Planning Committee members have rejected an application by Robertson’s Homes to build a budget hotel and student residence on the site of the demolished Abbey Park House in St Andrews. Originally a small boutique hotel was planned to provide a beneficial use for the historic building, but after the it fell into dangerous disrepair while under the care of the developer, it was demolished.
Councillors cut through the verbiage of a sixty eight page planning report to assert the importance of protecting the natural environment and mainlining residential amenity over the developers aspirations to build a 90 bed hotel and 100 bed student residence in the centre of mainly elderly and special needs housing.
In order to accommodate this development several protected trees including two rare Holm oaks would have to be removed and part of the historic entrance on Abbey Walk widened, but the access would remain as essentially a single track road following the route of the historic driveway to Abbey Park House.
Residents who had been sold their homes on the basis of a quiet residential neighbourhood, were understandably upset by this proposal, and vigorously opposed the development. At the Committee meeting held on 29th May, fifty members of the Abbey Park community packed the public gallery and applauded when the councillors reached their unanimous decision to reject the proposal.
Introducing the item, the Convenor of the Committee Councillor Donald Lothian, welcomed members of the public and was concerned because of poor acoustics at previous council meetings was concerned that the audio system would allow proceedings to be clearly heard.
Leading the discussion, Councillor Tony Miklinski said that on the site visit had left him with the impression that the proposal was totally inappropriate in this established residential community. While the small boutique hotel proposal might have been appropriate when the listed building could be saved, the justification for a hotel should have lapsed when Abbey Park House was demolished. Why, he asked, had the Strategic Development Framework for Abbey Park not been amended to reflect this new reality? The tone of the site had been established by the residential properties already there. While student behaviour could not be considered, the potential clash of lifestyles was an acknowledged fact of life. The response to this question from the planning officer was that the economic arm of the Council had supported the hotel development and consequently it had been incorporated in the new Fife Plan, a document not specific to the Abbey Park House.
Councillor John Docherty expressed concern about environmental impacts of the proposal, noting that much animal and bird activity had been obstructed during the councillors’ site visit. The removal of protected trees to be replaced by buildings and tarmac would degrade biodiversity and the natural environment.
Councillor Linda Holt asked why the Strategic Development Framework for the site had not been amended when Abbey Park House was demolished. In addition, the applicant had previously requested that the hotel requirement be removed from the FifePlan as they said that a hotel on this site had proved to be non-viable after unsuccessfully seeking an operator over several years. She pointed out the noise, light pollution and sleep disturbance which would result from frequent comings and goings at all hours from a budget hotel.
Councillor Jonny Tepp asked for confirmation that the proposal constituted a Schedule 3 or “bad neighbour” development. This was confirmed by the planning officer, who said that this had been taken into account, but not regarded as a significant issue in his assessment. The planning report had not mentioned the “Bad Neighbour”issue, but the planning officer noted that he had recorded residents concerns, and had dismissed them all as not being justified.
Councillor Ann Verner said that despite the information provided by the applicant, her understanding was that there was surplus accommodation in the nearby Ayton House private student residence, and St Andrews hotels had only a 64% average occupancy rate. Why then, the need for more such accommodation?
It was noted that both the Students Association had objected to the proposal and that the University Principal had not supported it.
Councillor Andy Hear also voiced criticism of the proposal, considering it entirely inappropriate for this location, while Councillor Tim Brett requested information on the location of entrances to be buildings, and the provision for reversing refuse lorries and asked if the community consultation had resulted in any changes being made to the plans. He was apparently not reassured by the answers given which involved hotel guests being dropped off adjacent to residential properties.
In response to a question by Councillor Holt, the planning officer acknowledged that the headlights of cars exiting from the hotel would shine directly into the windows of the residential properties opposite.
Councillor David McDiarmid likened the design of the proposed buildings as “Lego blocks” and questioned the appropriateness of such a design in the conservation area. He was also concerned about the felling of healthy mature protected trees to facilitate the development, a concern shared with Councillor Holt who considered that such natural assets should be protected rather than removed to maximise the space for the development.
Councillor Miklinski also noted that car parking standards had been reduced to enable the plans to be recommended for approval and considered that this was the wrong approach. Any proposal for development should fit the available space, rather than compromise standards to allow it to proceed.
Councillor Miklinski proposed the motion for refusal on multiple grounds which included the unsuitable design of the buildings, the fact that student accommodation on the site was not supported by the FifePlan or the Strategic Development Framework, the inadequate access infrastructure and in the negative impact on residential amenity, which included the likelihood of disturbance late at night because of traffic to the budget hotel. Councillor MacDiarmid seconded the motion and proposed additional environmental grounds for refusal. No counter motion was tabled. It was agreed that these grounds would be amalgamated. The committee’s legal advisor Stephen Patterson comprehensively summed them up in legal terms and was delegated to produce these for subsequent approval at the next North East Planning Commi