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Planning proving a problem in Cambridge

Cambridge city's listed buildings and change of use approvals for Darwin College's recent acquisition, The Malting House, Newnham - Smith and Brewer's unique 1904 residence - reinforces recent remarks about philistine planning (Editorial and Letters, AJ 9.10.03).

Yes, Grade II listing is a licence to kill. Detailed letters of objection from neighbours and Arts and Crafts experts (Richard Holder, Andrew Saint, Alan Powers, William Fawcett, Diane Haigh) were dismissed, in the officer's words: 'Don't know what all the fuss is about.'

That was exactly the problem - the college, the planning officers and the councillors' lack of understanding.

The agent's application misrepresented the land ownership by a third and almost doubled the number of bedrooms on the 'plans as existing' (six actual bedrooms became 11 - incredibly the fine first-floor suite of living, dining and breakfast room were all listed as 'bedrooms'). This barely registered with planners or councillors.

(To unobservant eyes, the proposal for 14 postgraduate rooms would seem innocuous. ) The Malting House is one of the few substantial residences of the Edwardian era remaining in Cambridge as a family home.

Now the integrity of vision of Smith and Brewer and their client, the Reverend Stewart, and the original spatial sequence of rooms, will be compromised. The impact of subdivision, fire safety, extra plumbing, etc (building control measures that have still be to agreed), imply further damage to the sensitive fabric and details of the original work. Yet no historic building panel views were sought in advance of listing building consent.

From the 1980s, for many years, this fine house was used by two families. The college has that option available; no expensive adaptation would be necessary. Had the Planning Committee possessed the facts it might have considered that, or the anticipated Master's Lodge, option.

The director of planning and the university have one of the better track records when it comes to high-profile commissioning. Yet they need to improve performance lower down the scale on problems of context and detail.

The two decisions on applications made without advance participation were arbitrary.

The implications are both national and local, and highlight planning inadequacies.

Cambridge's heritage, and its future well-being, require skills at all levels. Darwin College should take time to rethink its priorities. It remains in need of independent expert advice, as does the city. It is unfortunate that the recommendation offered early in September (for experts' reports - an appraisal of the character of the area and an appraisal of the qualities and significance of the Arts and Crafts interior) was not acted upon then. Both reports should be mandatory for Grade II-listed buildings and group listings.

David Owers, Cambridge

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