Councillors have voted to approve controversial plans to relocate the Visions Childrens Centre to a new extension at Oakham Library.
After around three hours of debate, a motion to approve the council’s own planning application was carried by 13 votes to 11.
Around 50 members of the public – the majority of whom were opposed to the plans – had packed into the council chamber at Catmose House for the meeting on Monday evening.
Plans for the new children’s centre building were presented to the council’s Development Control and Licensing Committee on October 25, and were refused on the grounds that designs for the new building were inappropriate and would have a negative impact on the conservation area.
The planning application was referred to full council for further discussion and, after passionate speeches from those on both sides of the argument, the matter was finally settled.
Councillors were asked to take four planning matters into account before arriving at a decision: the design of the building; its impact on the conservation area; the effect on the residential amenity of neighbours; and road safety.
A number of deputations were made to the council by local residents who suggested the proposed development should be refused planning permission.
Joyce Lucas said the plan was “another dreadful example of the destruction by this authority of space in a conservation area.”
The council wants to move the centre to the library provide an “enhanced, joined-up service for local residents” and to free up space at Catmose College where it is currently based.
Stuart Williams, executive principal of the Rutland and District Schools’ Federation, spoke in favour of the proposal saying new housing developments were putting pressure on Catmose College.
He said: “In the past two years we have increased our intake from 180 to 210 pupils per year by relocating adult learning services.
“But without this space, we’d have to go back to 180 – meaning local children living just a few miles away from college would have to go elsewhere.
“They would be split up from their friends and the council would have to pay to transport them somewhere else.
“I value the conservation area, but a new building could be designed to fit in.”
Most councillors agreed the library itself, built in the 1970s, was an ugly building but there was disagreement over whether or not that set a precedent for the extension.
Coun Mark Oxley (Ind) said: “The library is an ugly building in the centre of a conservation area. We are proposing an ugly extension on the back of an ugly building.”
Coun Oliver Bird (Ind) said: “We have clear objectives to protect and enhance our built environment and promote good design. In my opinion a wooden box does not signify good design.
“One of the main reasons I stood for election was I was tired of inappropriate developments. It’s stripping out another bit of value from the conservation area of the town.”
Referring to the library building, Coun Rachel Burkitt (Con) said: “We look at the vandalism of the past and think ‘who would allow that to happen?’
“What will people think about our decision in future? Can’t we rebuild the whole building?”
But Coun Alan Walters (Ind) disagreed, saying: “What we have here is a pretty rough and ready car park and a bit of land next to it.
“The development would make both the library and the Visions centre more sustainable.”
Coun Richard Clifton (Con) said: “I don’t see the ugly building everyone sees. I grew up with it.
“The benefit is there – it’s a building on a car park and a bit of grass. It could be seen as an improvement to that part of town.”
Coun Tony Mathias (Con) said: “I think the design is fairly inocuous and perhaps new planting at the front might help.
“The building is very well screened from the road. On balance, I can’t see a valid reason to object.”
Prior to the debate, it was revealed that a procedural error had been made by the council. Monitoring officer Debbie Mogg told those in attendance that when the development committee voted to refuse permission back in October, the matter should automatically have been referred to full council for discussion.
But, in fact it was four of the councillors who disagreed with the initial refusal who made the referral. That error meant councillors had to vote to temporarily suspend part of the council’s constitution to ensure the debate and subsequent vote could go ahead as planned.
Speaking after the meeting, Catmose Street resident Nick Woodley, who had presented a deputation on behalf of a group of local residents, said: “I think the procedural error shows the incompetence demonstrated throughout by the council.
“We were told there had only been three accidents near the library in the past 10 years, but I’ve seen four this year alone.
“The wrong decision has been made. The council is going to spend around £400,000 on a centre which will be used by 15 people at a time – where is the benefit for all?
“I’m saddened and angry. It’s made me determined to stand for election at the next opportunity.”
Nick’s wife Pippy added: “When there is an accident, it will be on their heads.”
In a statement, Councillor Richard Foster, the council’s Portfolio Holder for Children and Young People, said: “Relocating Visions to a new building alongside Oakham Library will improve both these services for the benefit of local residents, particularly families with young children.
“Similar arrangements have been undertaken with great success by other local authorities, helping to make services more accessible and sustainable in the long-term. In this case, co-location means both services can be delivered effectively for the next 25 years.
“Activities can now be delivered in partnership between the children’s centre and the library in a single town centre location with better public transport links, rather than being replicated at different times and in different locations. As an added advantage, users will also benefit from having both groups of expert staff on hand to provide family and literacy support.”
A motion to approve planning permission was proposed by Coun Tony Mathias and seconded by Coun Richard Clifton.
How the councillors voted:
Coun Edward Baines (Con) - Against
Coun Nick Begy (Con) - For
Coun Oliver Bird (Ind) - Against
Coun Kenneth Bool (Con) - For
Coun Rachel Burkitt (Con) - Against
Coun Ben Callaghan (Ind) - Against
Coun Richard Clifton (Con) - For
Coun Gary Conde (Con) - For
Coun William Cross (Con) - Against
Coun Jeff Dale (Ind) - Against
Coun Richard Foster (Con) - For
Coun Richard Gale (Ind) - Against
Coun Oliver Hemsley (Con) - For
Coun Terry King (Con) - Did not take part in the vote having declared an interest as Portfolio Holder for Development
Coun James Lammie (Con) - For
Coun Diana MacDuff (Con) - For
Coun Alastair Mann (Con) - For
Coun Tony Mathias (Con) - For
Coun Marc Oxley (Ind) - Against
Coun Chris Parsons (Ind) - did not attend meeting
Coun Lucy Stephenson (Con) - Against
Coun Andrew Stewart (Con) - For
Coun Kevin Thomas (Lib) - Against
Coun Gale Waller (Lib) - Against
Coun Alan Walters (Ind) - For
Coun David Wilby (Con) - For