The City of Durham Trust

Elvet Waterside: Plans withdrawn

The Trust has welcomed the announcement, in early February, by Banks Development Ltd that they have withdrawn their plans to build 26 town houses, 101 apartments and 2 maisonettes, plus a riverside café/restaurant and offices, on a site betwen Old Elvet and the river.

The proposals met with widespread opposition. Most objectors have highlighted the expansion into the green space of the bowling green, and the height and impact of the buildings, which will spoil views of the Castle and Cathedral. And the Trust's 2008 Christmas Card, which featured a photograph of the site, sold out in record time.

The Trust's own letter of objection accepts, as did most objectors, that the site should be redeveloped, but states that only that part which is “manifestly a brownfield site” should be built on. We had serious reservations about the scheme which, in broad terms, are as follows:

  1. Views of the World Heritage Site will be impoverished, while the computer-generated images of all the views are poor productions and misleading.
  2. The foundation for this new quarter of the City is to be a ‘raft’, raised two metres above the present flood plain. Apart from the logistics of importing a vast quantity of earth/rubble, repercussions on the appearance of both the bounding edge, especially that facing the Race Course, and townscape require close examination. The bulk of the development is to be housing, which will rise 3-4 storeys on the raised platform. (This compares with the present units which are almost all single storey.) Raising of the site level will also mean that many of the existing trees will be lost.
  3. The development, on an area of high flood risk, is to balanced by a “compensatory flood storage site” upstream. The efficacy of flood amelioration, as well as downstream consequences, is not clear. Indeed the area was subject to widespread flooding in the summer of 2009, which may have contributed to the decision to withdraw the plans.
  4. Durham County Council is joint owner of the site, having assumed it from the City Council on its demise. There is thus a coincidence of interest, with the Local Authority being both judge and jury. This has already brought controversy, when the City Council persuaded the University to revoke its covenant on the former bowling green, thus permitting it to be added to the area for housing. (In the Local Plan the bowling green area is shown within the Area of High Landscape Value.)

Trustees therefore asked Government Office for the North East to issue an Article 14 with a view to calling it in for independent adjudication. It was a large and complex application, of more than local or regional significance, on a site partly owned by the Local Authority in a sensitive location within the City’s Central Conservation Area and with implications for the World Heritage Site.

There were around 500 objections listed on the Council's website at the time the plans were withdrawn. The City Council's Head of Planning, David Thornborrow, wrote to the developers on 20 March 2008 to say that “the applications cannot be supported by planning officers in their present form” and went on to say “I strongly advocate that the application be withdrawn to enable an improved scheme, addressing its current weaknesses, to emerge.” Unfortunately it has taken almost two years for the developers to acceed to this request.

In a detailed seven-page letter, English Heritage have recommended the application be refused. They consider that the proposed scheme would have a detrimental effect upon the character and appearance of the Conservation Area, and upon the character of views towards the Durham Castle and Cathedral World Heritage Site and the important listed buildings within it.

A key issue is that the development is on the flood plain, in an area determined by the Environment Agency as being at the highest risk of flooding. Many objectors have highlighted this factor. The developer's solution is to raise the land at Elvet above the 100-year flood level (i.e. by up to six feet) and to provide a flood compensation area at the University's Maiden Castle sports grounds to hold the water that would have otherwise have flooded Elvet. The Environment Agency had objected but was then satisfied by revised figures provided by Banks. However, following the 2009 floods, they were taking another look at this issue.

Other bodies that objected include CPRE who object in the strongest possible terms; the Ramblers Association object to the effect on views from the footpaths, pointing out that the photographs in the Environmental Statement are misleading because they are wide-angle and avoid the most attractive views; and Claypath and District Residents Association, who conclude The development proposals are seriously flawed and an alternative should be developed which looks at the car park and swimming pool sites only. The existing green brownfield sites could then be improved and provide a natural buffer between Geenbelt and Cityscape.

Sir Harold Evans, former editor of the Northern Echo and the Sunday Times, says the plans are objectionable and should be rejected, adding There are always profit arguments for this kind of luxury project, but this typically impoverishes the city for it removes a lung and does it in a way that is inimical to the variegated character of the city. I have visited many cities of the world and they would envy the amenities this application would destroy — and for what? Yet another undistinguished piece of real estate. I urge the city to take a longer view: a great city is more than a collection of bricks and mortar.

There is still time to object to these proposals. If you haven't made your thoughts known, please do so now. Further information on how to do this may be found on the For City Sake web site.

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Last update: 24 February 2010.