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Wednesday, 20 February 2019
AN official at South Oxfordshire District Council has been accused of a “cover up” over repairs to the historic courtyard at the almshouses in Goring Heath.
Goring Heath Parish Council claims that successive planning officers made a series of errors in allowing cobblestones to be replaced with modern materials and refusing to order the work to be redone.
In a letter of complaint, it accused them of “incompetence” and of failing to protect a “nationally recognised heritage asset” and called for cobblestones to be replaced like for like.
The district council has apologised and admits it made mistakes and says it is “taking positive steps” to address them.
The issue began in 2015 after the trustees of the almhouses removed two sections of cobblestones in the courtyard and replaced them with a pebble and latex-bonded gravel surface.
They said the new surface was more level and safer for the elderly people living at the almhouses, which were built in 1724 and are Grade I listed.
But the parish council says the new material is inappropriate and the district council should have demanded that the trustees applied for listed building consent.
The letter says that the first mistake was made in 2011 when the trustees were told by a planning officer that they needed only ordinary planning permission and not listed consent after saying the cobblestones only dated back to the Seventies.
But photographs taken before then appeared to show the cobblestones in situ and when restoration work took place in 1993 vit had required listed building consent.
The letter says: “A competent officer would have observed that the surface was contemporary with the almshouses and should have looked at the [planning] history of the site and noted the surface was the subject of restoration in 1994, with listed building consent granted.
“This restoration is clearly evidenced by the plaque mounted on the front of the almshouses and ample evidence of the historical nature of the surface being available online.”
The new surface was installed in 2014 but the trustees didn’t submit a planning application so the parish council didn’t know about it until the following year when a member of the public complained.
Another planning officer concluded the work was a breach of planning control but that listed building consent wasn’t required as he believed the courtyard wasn’t a listed feature.
Despite this, the trustees still applied for listed building consent in February last year but then withdrew it after a third planning officer advised them it wasn’t necessary. The parish council says the officer failed to assess the situation properly and instead relied on the previous advice without considering whether it was correct or not.
It was only after the trustees applied for ordinary planning permission that the officer investigated further and accepted that listed building consent had been needed.
However, the officer said the new surface did not affect the “important contribution this courtyard makes to the significance of the listed building” and added: “I remain to be convinced that the council’s view on the impact of the unauthorised work… should change from previous officer advice.”
But the parish council says: “The only reason for no enforcement action being taken is the perverse and solitary view of the officer who, having been proved wrong on matters of law and the history of the site, is persisting in their view that no harm has been done.
“Their position might be interpreted as one of a cover up, using a completely subjective and perverse assessment of the damage done to the Grade I listing to justify the track record of previous incompetence by their predecessors and themselves.
“This pattern of failure to properly protect nationally recognised heritage assets of the first order of quality and importance can be rectified by the district council using its statutory powers to require the reinstatement of the original surface.”
The parish council is supported by Georgian Group, a conservation body, the Oxfordshire Historical and Architectural Historical Society, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Chiltern Society and the Chiltern Conservation Board.
Liz Woolley, honorary secretary of the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society, said: “The [trustees] dismiss far too lightly the significance of the cobbles… even if they were new in the Seventies, they were entirely in keeping with other historic buildings in the area and could be argued to have enhanced the character and significance of the building.
“This certainly cannot be said of the modern gravel and resin replacement which is a modern finish only available in the past decade or so. The only claimed justification for the removal of the cobblestones is on safety grounds but this too is poorly documented.
“No indication is given of accidents within the past 50 years and while preventative measures may be justifiable they must still be balanced against any harm to the character.”
Matilda Harden, conservation advisor for the Georgian Group, said: “The need for listed building consent is critical due to the harmful damage that the latex bond gravel does to the setting of the building.
“It is unarguable that the courtyard of the almshouses affects its setting and significance.”
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