The new South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) is facing its first major test over controversial plans to restore Midhurst’s historic King Edward VII hospital and redevelop the land around it.
Chichester district councillors gave the plans overwhelming backing despite their officers’ advice to object.
But now the park authority’s planning officers are recommending refusal of the plans from developers City and Country.
In their report to the park’s planning committee on Monday they say it should be thrown out because of the ‘substantial harm’ it posed to the listed building.
Their report says the public benefit of restoring the listed building does not outweigh the ‘disbenefits’ of departing from the development plan.
In addition financial appraisals had not, they said, demonstrated ‘enabling development’ would secure the long-term future of the listed buildings
The developer wants to restore the former hospital building and its Gertrude Jekyll garden by building 220 new homes in the grounds. The plans also include provision of 143 assisted-care units in the original hospital building and further units provided through the conversion of other existing buildings.
The recommendation has provoked an angry reaction from the developers who claim national park officers have failed to get to grips with the issues involved.
Managing director Helen Moore said: “We are extremely disappointed the officers have ignored the advice of Chichester District Council and have instead recommended letting a nationally-important heritage asset and much-cherished local landfall fall into terminal disrepair and eventual ruin.”
She added: “With the recommendation for approval from English Heritage as the heritage expert, the support of Natural England as the ecology and environment expert, the resounding support of CDC, the fact the government’s independent expert on viability has stated these proposals are not unrealistic and the fact the park authority gave in principle support to these proposals in November last year, I fail to see how the officers can credibly endorse their recommendation for refusal.”
She called on park authority members to consider the scheme on its merits and support the plans rather than ‘squander’ the chance to save the historic buildings.
Appealing to the ‘silent majority of local residents whose lives have been touched by the hospital estate over the years’, she asked them to support the plans and make their voices heard.
But the recommendation to the national park’s planning committee will be welcomed by those who have objected to the plans.
They include Easebourne, Elsted and Treyford, Lynchmere and Bramshott and Liphook Parish Councils who, along with Haslemere Town Council and the Lynchmere and Haslemere Societies, have written an open letter to the SDNPA claiming it would be ‘grossly irresponsible’ to permit the development.
“It is important it establishes itself as a body which has the stature to make difficult decisions for compelling reasons – reasons that have a proper regard for established communities rather than the ambitions of a developer or sentiment for an obsolete building. Simply, we are not prepared to destroy our future to protect the past.”
Midhurst Town Council has also written objecting to the plan, along with the Midhurst Society and Fernhurst and Bepton Parish Councils.
In addition, environmental pressure group, the South Downs Society, has called on the SDNPA to ‘do the right thing’ and reject the plans.