Accusation of ‘litany’ of errors by council enforcement over application for Cliftonville shopfront replacement

Shopfront before and after

A retrospective application for a replacement shopfront in Northdown Road, Cliftonville, is being recommended for refusal by Thanet council’s planning office – but the agent for the application has slammed officers and listed what he says is a ‘litany’ of failings by the authority.

The timber shopfront at 274 Northdown Road, previously the base of Kent Scuba, was removed and replaced with a new aluminium shop front for MPH accountants, circa August 2019.

The property owners say they were not made aware of the need for a planning application and only found out after being contacted by Thanet council enforcement officers.

In a submission lodged by agent Tony Michael Consulting, it says: “This Full Planning Application is an attempt to remediate the Planning circumstances, and has been requested by TDC Enforcement, under threat of prosecution of the property owner/operator, despite the litany of failings by the LPA in the matter.”

‘Traditional heritage shop front’

In a report to members on the council’s planning committee, refusal is recommended with the council’s conservation officer saying: “The traditional heritage shop front has been removed and replaced by an aluminium frontage which appears contemporary amongst the traditional environment that exists within the conservation area and throughout principle elevations of nearby properties.

“The new shopfront is of little character or quality, and contributes to a diminished level the positive aesthetic given that it has lost all the defining traditional features following their removal. This includes the detailed brick course along the bottom, the small display cabinet to the right hand side of the entrance door, course of transom lights, traditional door and internal panelling.

“The removal of these elements combined with the installation of the aluminium shop front is deemed to be a considerable loss of character for the conservation area causing harm to its appearance and general disruption of its traditional form..”

The officer adds: “I object to the application proposed and suggest that it is reverted back to enforcement and a quality shopfront installed.”

‘No advice – despite fee payment’

However, Mr Michael says that an application for pre-planning advice was never responded to – despite a fee being paid – and a subsequent threat of enforcement action quoted a planning reference that did not exist.

He said: “A Pre-Application Enquiry was prepared and deposited to the LPA (Thanet council) on 16 October 2019, despite several requests and extensions of time granted, no written advice was ever provided by the LPA.

“On 1 March 2021, 17 months after the pre-application enquiry was deposited. the LPA, sent a letter to the premises, threatening enforcement action for failing to make valid a planning application that they referenced as F/TH/20/1513 -which did not exist. At this point, the applicant, via their agent, wrote to the LPA to explain this, and the agreement made with the LPA that a planning application would be deposited after pre Application Advice was obtained. As no such advice was issued by the LPA – despite several extensions of time agreements – a planning application could not be deposited.

“The excuse offered by the LPA for failing to carry out their obligation, despite being paid their fees, was stated by the chief officer in his email dated 1st April 2021, and which reads; ‘a written response should have been sent out confirming the discussions from the site meeting and in response to your submissions on site. This was not initially sent due to the workload of the officer, however after this period it was not prioritised within the competing workload demands through 2020.

“I apologise for the failure of the planning department to provide the written view of the council to your proposed changes to the unauthorised shopfront. Therefore we will refund the full pre-application fee paid (£360) and raise a cheque to be sent back for this amount.’

“It would appear, for at least a whole year, this advice was “not prioritised”. And it was clearly of such low priority and importance, and that no harm arose from the installed shop front, that the advice was never issued.”

The agent also criticises the conservation officer for stating the shop front was historic, claiming the site is not referenced in the conservation area document for Cliftonville, saying: “The LPA’s conservation officer cannot simply just decide the previous shop front is “historic” – when it is not identified as such in any of their policies or listings for such buildings.”

He also levels an accusation of maladministration, pointing to an email from planning enforcement saying that: “After an informal discussion with the conservation officer…….  must advise this application will not be looked upon favourably” and condemning it as meaning the application was prejudged and pre-determined without proper process.

His document adds: “It is further argued that the shop front to no 274 is in fact improved, over the previous/existing shop front, as the poor, disproportionate, “Kent scuba” fascia sign is removed, and the original, fascia is revealed, and to be utilised for the new “MPH Accountants” fascia sign.”

Refusal recommendation

However, the report to councillors who will discuss the application on January 19, says: “The alterations to the shop front have resulted in the loss of a shop front that was constructed from traditional materials and with a traditional design.

“The new shopfront has resulted in some public benefits such as improved security, thermal efficiency and accessibility, however it has not been adequately demonstrated that these benefits could not be achieved through the adaption of the previous shopfront or the use of more sympathetic materials and design and therefore these benefits are considered to be outweighed by the harm.”