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Eastside planning row could provide big pay day for lawyers

Eastside planning row could provide big pay day for lawyers

🕔26.Jan 2012

Birmingham’s huge Eastside regeneration scheme has something of a reputation for playing fast and loose with conservation, which is hardly surprising given the number of old industrial buildings that have been flattened to make way for new development.

And the latest change-versus-heritage battle has all the ingredients necessary to end up in a long and costly legal battle for Birmingham City Council.

Members of the Planning Committee are determined to save Island House, an Edwardian former office block and warehouse which has been empty and derelict for several years.

Island House is just about the only building remaining between Millennium Point and Fazeley Street, but developers Quintain say it must come down because it is a haven for vandals, too expensive to maintain and is in the way of the planned HS2 high speed rail station and the four-star Hotel  la Tour.

Councillors on the Planning Committee believe there is no reason why Island House cannot be restored and put back to use as a stunning example of Birmingham’s industrial past.

The problem is, they are powerless to prevent the building from being demolished.

Planning law dictates that demolition of non-listed buildings does not constitute development and therefore planning permission is not required. All that has to happen is for planning authorities to approve the method of demolition and proposals for restoration of the site.

Acting upon legal advice, Birmingham Planning Committee reluctantly approved the method of demolition and a proposal to grass over the site. A suggestion from Labour councillors that restoration should consist of reconstructing Island House brick by brick on another site was ruled out as unenforceable by planning officers.

But this is unlikely to be the end of the story. Thanks to the vagaries of English planning law, the council has a cunning back-up plan to save Island House.

Five years ago Quintain obtained planning permission to build the City Park Gate mixed-use scheme consisting of offices, housing, shops and a hotel. The company signed a Section 106 agreement with the city council, promising to “retain and refurbish” Island House.

Earlier this month, Quintain submitted an application to change the Section 106 agreement to remove the pledge to restore Island House. That application is out for public consultation and will return to the committee for consideration next month.

A juicy legal conundrum is in prospect. On the one hand, Quintain could demolish Island House immediately, since it has approval from the Planning Committee to do so. On the other hand, the company would be in contravention of its Section 106 agreement were it to send in the bulldozers.

There are no prizes for guessing how the committee will vote when the application to change the Section 106 agreement comes before members. Committee chairman Peter Douglas Osborn said: “We have little room for manoeuvre, but we can try to protect the building by enforcing the Section 106 agreement.”

No one can say for certain how this will pan out.

A glossy council brochure depicting the Digbeth Enterprize Zone clearly shows the new HS2 station and there is no sign of Island House, which is a fair indication of the way the cabinet is thinking. But the Planning Committee is famously independent and is unlikely to take kindly to being bounced into a decision by the council executive.

This one could run and run, at least until they start laying the high speed rail tracks.

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