A family in King’s Cross fear they will be forced out of their historic home after planners rejected an application for a lift at the rear of their property, claiming it would cause too much ‘harm’ to the heritage of the building.
Lucy, 62, and Andrew, 71, bought the listed Georgian terrace on Regent Square for their extended family after retiring in 2014. But Andrew began to suffer from post-polio syndrome shortly after, a rare degenerative condition that can affect survivors of polio decades after recovery. Andrew contracted polio as a six year old in 1956.
It means that he has been increasingly unable to get up and down the stairs, with Lucy reporting they have been ‘camping in the basement for 6 years’.
After fearing they would lose the use of the upper storeys of their home entirely, Andrew’s family began to enquire with Camden Council about whether they could install a small lift at the rear of the property to ensure they could continue to live there.
But Lucy reported that following their initial enquiry in August 2018, planners took them on an ‘exasperating, emotionally draining experience,’ making ‘numerous factual mistakes… despite our supplying them with historic evidence and current information.’
Planners were concerned that given the listed status of the Georgian terrace a lift at the rear of the property would ‘harm’ the historic and architectural interest of the building, and that no justification could be given for that harm.
The couple reports that the only advice they were given was to ‘consult with the Bloomsbury CAAC,’ the local heritage advisory committee tasked with protecting the heritage of the area.
But rather than oppose the application, the advisory committee supplied architectural input to refine the proposals and eventually wrote a letter of support for the application, claiming that the benefit of keeping the home in single occupancy use would outweigh any ‘heritage harm’ caused to the building itself or wider area.
The rear of the property is no longer visible from the public realm, following completion of a major redevelopment in 2020 directly behind the terraces.
But planners rejected the application last month, stating that there was no ‘public benefit’ to outweigh the ‘heritage harm’ caused to the building. They also stated that letters of support written by neighbouring residents and the Bloomsbury CAAC could not be given ‘statutory weight’ and therefore were irrelevant to the decision making progress.
They went on to say that: ‘Internal lifts such as this are not a traditional feature of Georgian properties and the proposal would therefore introduce an alien feature that would cause harm to the plan form and internal proportions of the building at second and third floor level.’
Lucy and Andrew are now seeking to appeal the decision, but if they lose they will be left with no choice but to move out of their home after being unable to use the upper storeys for more than half a decade.
Ward councillor and planning committee member Georgie Robertson was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Comment: Planning System designed for ‘Developers with Money’
Camden has a widespread reputation for allowing controversial development and alterations to historic buildings and places throughout the borough. The local authority recently faced vocal criticism for approving the ten storey Belgrove House directly opposite a square of listed Georgian terraces, so to reject a small lift in the garden of a similar building seems extraordinary and fundamentally unfair.
Under changes made by the coalition government in the 2010s only ‘public benefit’ can be used to justify any amount of harm to historic buildings and places. Roughly speaking, this means that major development companies can justify the total demolition of historic buildings if they can prove it will boost the economy or bring other similar ‘benefit’, while ordinary people like Lucy and Andrew are unable to make even minor alterations to historic buildings. Costs to secure planning permission can easily outstrip the costs of construction, even for small changes.
It is usual practice for local authorities to employ some level of leniency when applying this test to small development proposals, allowing extensions to listed properties when they cause a negligible amount of ‘harm’. But in this case it seems that Camden chose to take a hard stance and apply the rules in their strictest interpretation.
But given Camden’s political stance as apparently championing the rights and freedoms of protected groups like the elderly and disabled, they are rightly coming under criticism for failing to make reasonable allowances in this case. Individuals who are mobility impaired shouldn’t be frozen out of enjoying and caring for the nation’s famous historic places and buildings, especially when they have the support of the very heritage groups tasked with protecting those places.
The planning system in this country is increasingly oriented towards large corporations and development companies, while routinely failing the ordinary people who live among its streets and pay the salaries of its planners. That a major development was constructed just to the rear of Andrew’s home while he waited years only to be refused highlights the deep distortions in the planning system, and the weight in favour of those with money.
While recent reforms to the planning system are being promoted as a ‘win for community involvement’ in shaping major development proposals, it overlooks the fundamental point that planning isn’t just about the profits of big corporations, but also about protecting the rights of individuals across the country to the peaceful enjoyment of their own homes and neighbourhoods, regardless of disability. If in the midst of a so-called housing crisis the ‘town planning’ system is forcing disabled people out of their homes, serious questions need to be asked about how it functions and for whom.