Press Article - Policy or Pragmatism? | by Sam Thornton

Photo: Simon Harris

Sam Thornton, The Sudbury Society

The role of the Sudbury Society is to champion the maintenance and protection of the historic buildings in Sudbury and to exert our influence to maintain the physical and economic vitality of the town wherever we can.

We have identified ten Listed buildings in the town which are neglected and at risk of falling into further disrepair. Rather than just complain to the owners, we have opened a dialogue with some of them to try and advance solutions to protect the heritage and vitality of these buildings.

One of the most prominent is No 2 King Street, a fine Grade II Listed building built in 1816 as the rectory to St Peter’s Church opposite. This elegant Regency building was described in this column on 1 July by my colleague Anne Grimshaw. It has now stood empty for a good ten years.

The building was formerly an office with parking in what was once the rectory garden behind. A particular noteworthy feature is the fine classical portico, where one of the columns has collapsed and has a temporary replacement. Sadly, the demand for local office accommodation has fallen in recent years and the internal layout of the place has discouraged potential tenants.

Last year the Sudbury Society reviewed the situation with the building’s owner and converting it to residential use seemed the best way of preserving and ensuring the future of this building. A scheme was prepared which provided six sensibly sized units with the important benefit of on-site parking. This was presented to the Planning Officer from Babergh MidSuffolk District Council whose principal concern with it seemed to be that “a satisfactory marketing campaign has not been undertaken”. In other words, go back and try harder to find a commercial tenant. This despite the clear evidence that there is no such demand for office space in Sudbury, as was demonstrated in a previous application that was then shelved.

Meanwhile, No 2 King St slowly deteriorates and the owner wonders why he should spend further money on a dead loss.

Planning policy put in place years ago required that before a change of use can be approved a property had to be advertised widely to ensure it could not still be retained as it was. Under recent Permitted Development legislation, a change from office to residential can now proceed without that requirement. However, the policy still remains in place for Listed buildings. We fully accept that in any proposed change to the use of a Listed building, its architectural character needs to be maintained but surely when it has lain empty and unused for years, the planners need to adopt a more pragmatic approach?

In a town like Sudbury it is very often the Listed buildings that need the help and support of the planning system to secure their long term future. Instead, here we see a slavish adherence to an outdated policy which now works against positive preservation.

We see the same charade at the former Secret Garden building in Friars Street, where the planners applied this policy to obstruct and delay a change of use to residential. Much more delay and we can envisage this very delicate and fragile building being condemned as unsafe and demolished, when a pragmatic solution would have ensured its future as a period home along Sudbury’s best streetscape.

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