Published: 13:12, 15 July 2021
| Updated: 13:13, 15 July 2021
A major redesign has been requested on a plan to replace an historic building with modern apartment blocks.
The late-19th century Swanton House in Ashford's Elwick Road served as an auxiliary military hospital in the First World War, later housing Kent Social Service facilities.
It is believed to have been vacant for more than 17 years, with Ashford Borough Council's property wing A Better Choice for Property Ltd having purchased it from Kent County Council in 2019.
A plan was submitted in June 2020 to clear the site - which neighbours Ashford College - and build 34 flats across two blocks up to four storeys high.
The council-led scheme came before ABC's planning committee yesterday, drawing a lot of criticism before being deferred.
A report collated ahead of the meeting showed planning officers had recommended approval, subject to planning conditions.
However councillors disagreed with this view, highlighting the lack of a good design and parking provision included in the scheme.
A spokeswoman for A Better Choice for Property said: "This proposal represents an exciting opportunity to visually improve a derelict, vacant and unsightly brownfield site in Ashford's town centre.
"A detailed historic analysis of the existing building has been carried out and the proposal has been sensitively designed in relation to its context within the conservation area, the Memorial Gardens and the college campus - particularly in terms of its scale, massing and proposed materials."
Michelle Krawczyk of the Central Ashford Community Forum said while she doesn't oppose redevelopment of the "dangerous eye-sore", she felt a design panel's recommendations had been ignored.
She worried its layout and look could harm the conservation area, and told councillors to ask themselves "is this high-quality design? Does it reflect or ideally enhance Ashford's local distinctiveness? The answer to these questions is no."
Her view that they were "uninspiring, unimaginative square boxes of flats" was later echoed by the committee.
Ward representative Cllr Charles Suddards (Lab) noted the original intention was to demolish the building to replace it with a "technology wing" for Ashford College, which he said "could've justified pulling down Swanton House for the educational and employment opportunities such a wing might have offered".
But he says the current proposal doesn't match this, and worried that the scheme was "failing to provide for family-sized accommodation of an affordable nature" and highlighted "unacceptable" parking provision that should not be "given a free pass".
Cllr Suddards added that the design panel "comprised architectural professionals... has said the existing building is of architectural merit and as such has significant value in itself and its role in the town centre as a conservation area".
He then urged councillors to reject the scheme.
Cllr Nathan Iliffe (Con) reflected on the change in Elwick Road's general appearance in recent years, and said the site's appearance would be improved by the scheme.
However on parking he stated that ABC policy dictated at least one parking space per dwelling in the town centre.
The Conservative councillor added: "I'm not comfortable with that policy being overturned and being reduced to 0.8."
Cllr Iliffe feared the targeted market of young professionals and couples would have at least one if not two vehicles.
Ashford Labour leader Brendan Chilton branded the application "very disappointing", noting "it doesn't meet our design policies, our conservation policies and our heritage policies".
'These aren't minor tweaks - these are quite substantial changes'
He suggested the building had only reached its current state through the neglect of previous owners KCC and ABC, and said that its First World War role "is of historic significance and we should treat it more respectfully than we have".
Panning the design, he called it a "carbuncular grey egg box".
Planning officer Roland Mills defended the "modern" architecture, saying: "I do think there is scope for modern and traditional architecture to create a lively and vibrant street scene.
"Regarding whether it's a 'grey box', I guess that comes down to stylistic preferences and if you're building a block of flats it will naturally come to a grid format.
"I think it's a little more subtle than it first appears in the elevation plans."
The parking, design and loss of heritage design were further raised by Cllrs Euan Anckorn (Lab), Noel Ovenden (Ashford Independent) and Neil Shorter (Con).
Cllr Paul Clokie (Con) proposed outright refusal rather than deferral, hoping for "a better result" in the future.
More councillors echoed the views of the earlier speakers, and Cllr Ovenden asked that the scheme be deferred for at least three months to allow the applicant to have a "good think about it".
The motion to defer was the only one to come forward, proposed by Cllr Anckorn and seconded by Cllr Ovenden.
Planning officer Mr Mills said he felt "a bit of a headache coming on", saying "I do appreciate the nuance between deferring something and fundamentally redesigning it".
"From the comments members have made, these aren't minor tweaks - these are quite substantial changes."
Adding the conditions of returning to the committee in no less than three months, as well as enhancing and not just being in keeping with the conservation area, the deferral was overwhelmingly approved with only one member dissenting.