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Philip Evans


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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Unanimous decision to turn Webster’s Garage into car park

Councillors, traders, and chamber of commerce members gathered on the disused Webster’s site to celebrate the landmark decision that removed a major hurdle to town centre regeneration.
On Tuesday of last week members of East Devon District Council's (EDDC) Development Management Committee voted unanimously in favour of plans to turn the derelict Webster's site into a car park for up to five years until a long-term solution is found.
The landslide victory for site owner Hallmark Estates was a knock-out blow to planning and conservation officers determined to retain the old Busy Bee building on the edge of the site.
Permission to go ahead was given subject to the completion of satisfactory tree and protected species reports, which are seen as formalities by those involved with the planning process.
Conservation officers' description of the unlisted former Busy Bee building as "a positive contribution to the significance of the conservation area" had caused outrage in most quarters of the town. The prominent town centre site has been deemed an eyesore for more than 30 years, and it was generally thought that converting it into a car park as a stop-gap measure would mark the start of a revival for the town centre.
But the conservation officers' recommendation to retain the former Busy Bee building played a major part in planning officers recommending the committee to turn down the application.
Introducing the agenda item on Tuesday, March 4th, EDDC development manager Ed Freeman described the building as "a heritage asset by definition."
But Axminster mayor Jeremy Walden counter-attacked by saying: "The conservation officers' comment beggars belief.
"The executive summary [in the agenda] suggests bringing 9 Lyme Street [the old Busy Bee building] back into use.
"This is the triumph of hope over reality. We don't know the costs involved, but it is clear the applicants would have to spend considerable sums bringing it up to commercial standard and then find a tenant without brain cells who is willing to fit it out on what would have to be a non-assured tenancy at a totally uneconomic rent."
Councillor Walden also attacked an officer's assertion that Axminster is well-served by car parks, and said: "His comment that the town is well-served by car parks has no evidential support.
"In fact, EDDC has identified that Axminster is short of parking and is actively seeking new sites."
A list of speakers had their say, including Axminster resident Bob Sherborne. He said: "The time to rebuild it [the old Busy Bee building] has gone. The residents have been waiting for more than 30 years.
"It is not a listed building and it is not recorded as being of historical significance."
Hallmark Estates agent Graham Barton gave a passionate speech, telling members of the DMC: "I'm so jealous of you because you have the ability to make thousands of people smile [by approving the application]."
He also told members, tongue-in-cheek, it would not be safe for them to visit Axminster should they refuse the application, but added that people would clamour for pieces of their clothing as keepsakes should they approve it.
Axminster district councillor Andrew Moulding had a swipe at officers, saying: "How you can perceive that the loss of the building would outweigh the benefits, I cannot understand."
His fellow district councillor Douglas Hull told the committee: "All Axminster councillors here, and the mayor, represent all different shades of political opinion - and we are united.
"We want to bring a hammer and deliver the first blow. Let's get rid of this hideous building."
When DMC members started their debate, councillor Mike Howe (Clyst Valley ward) gave an early indication of what was to come by saying: "I'd like to recommend approval subject to a satisfactory species study."
Councillor Ben Ingham (Woodbury and Lympstone) praised EDDC's planning team but expressed concern about the conversation officers.
DMC chairman Helen Parr defended them by saying: "Conservation officers have a professional role to play."
Councillor Howe's comment was eventually worked into a formal proposal to approve subject to the completion of satisfactory tree and protected species reports plus agreement on the height of railings.
Hallmark Estates and its associates were in negotiations with contractors this morning to start demolition on the former Webster's site as soon as possible.
Mr Barton hoped the surveys could be completed during the next two weeks, and that the car park could be operational at some point this year.


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