Plans to redevelop Harlequins shopping centre were approved by Exeter City Council’s planning committee in October last year despite vehement opposition from residents, campaigners and conservation charities, subject to the developer meeting a range of planning conditions.
These conditions were satisfied on 23 April this year, when the council confirmed its formal consent for the scheme.
However, having secured permission to build a 251-bed co-living block and a 116-bed hotel on the site, the developer has since submitted a revised application to return to an earlier, rejected, vision for the site which will replace the hotel with a second co-living block.
The resulting scheme would mean a total of 378 co-living bedspaces would be built along the length of the 1.04 hectare Paul Street site.
The developer says coronavirus impacts since its November 2019 planning application justify the scheme’s reversion to wholesale co-living. But the scheme was twice substantially revised after the application was submitted, in May 2020, two months after the pandemic arrived in the UK, and again in July. The hotel remained throughout the changes that were made.
The application was not decided until 26 October 2020, by which time the second wave of the pandemic was well under way. Jones Lang LaSalle, the applicant’s agent, continued to extol the claimed benefits of the hotel in a letter sent to the council on the day its planning committee met.
The consent that was granted for the previous scheme now becomes what is called a “material consideration” in the revised application, which means the council must take it into account when making its decision.
The revised scheme for the site is described as “very similar” to the approved plans. It has the same footprint as the previously proposed buildings and the overall design is unchanged.
The developer emphasises a reduction in the height of the second block as the co-living bedspaces would have lower ceilings than the planned hotel rooms. This would amount to the building being 2’6” shorter.
The internal layouts of both blocks have been altered, with slight increases in room and shared communal space sizes.
According to the application statement “cluster rooms” (bedrooms in multi-occupancy flats which share a kitchen) are “approximately” 1m2 larger and amenity space, which is intended to be shared between the occupants of both blocks, has been increased by 0.43m2 per room to an average of 3.27m2 for each of the 378 bedspaces.
In the revised plans “cluster rooms” are typically 13.5m2 and most of the studios are just over 18m2. The national minimum space standards are 37m2 for a one person dwelling (when it has a shower instead of a bath).
The revised plans greatly increase the proportion of studio rooms to cluster flats. The co-living block which was approved in October was to include 99 studios and 26 cluster flats containing a total of 152 bedspaces.
The revised scheme reconfigures that block to provide 143 studios and 18 cluster flats containing a total of 107 bedspaces, and adds another 128 studios in the block which is intended to replace the hotel. 72% of the rooms in the new scheme are studios, nearly double the share in the previous scheme.
The developer cites the “high density mixed use development” envisaged by the city council’s “Liveable Exeter” property development programme in support of these arrangements.
Diana Moore, Green Party councillor for St David’s ward, which includes the Harlequins site, described the co-living plans at the time of last year’s planning decision as “warehousing for people”.
There were a wide range of other factors involved in the decision, in particular the impact on nearby heritage assets that the development would cause.
These include the historic city wall that borders the site as well as numerous nearby grade I, II*, II and locally-listed buildings.
The conclusion that the cumulative level of harm to these heritage assets was “less than substantial”, as well as the methods that were used to derive it, were strongly criticised by heritage experts and charities including The Georgian Group and The Victorian Society.
Various claims about the economic, social and environmental benefits of the development were also given significant weighting in the original decision, although revisions to some of those claims which downgraded their value did not make it into the council planning officer’s report.
Replacing the hotel with a second co-living block has prompted the production of a new economic impact assessment which estimates that the revised development “could support” a net total of 36 new jobs in the local economy. This is 20 fewer than the original plans.
It was also widely assumed that, despite the developer’s claim that the scheme will be co-living, it is likely to be occupied largely by students. Liberal Democrat councillor Michael Mitchell, who is a member of the council planning committee, said that the then proposed co-living block “appears to be, in all but name, more student accommodation”.
Keith Lewis of Exeter Civic Society also said: “The co-living accommodation appears to be exactly the same as that presented at consultation earlier in 2019 for student accommodation”.
When the council approved the previous Harlequins redevelopment scheme, a coalition of local residents and campaigners, local conservation charities and community groups including Exeter Civic Society, Devon Archeological Society and Devon Buildings Group, backed by The Victorian Society and The Georgian Group, unsuccessfully appealed to the Secretary of State to call in the decision.
Does the developer’s attempt to acquire permission to replace the hotel with a second co-living block on the site offer another opportunity to intervene?
The council says the revised application will be dealt with through the planning process in the usual way, and is likely to come before the planning committee for determination later this year.
The application can be viewed on the city council website, where comments are invited.