Heritage experts should have been consulted before approving Northampton councillor’s cafe extension

Abington Park Cafe.
Abington Park Cafe.

Planning officers at Northampton Borough Council should have taken on board comments from its own conservation officer before recommending a cafe extension for approval close to a listed building, a watchdog has found.

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has criticised a report that went before planning committee councillors in January, which described proposals for an extension of Abington Park Cafe back in January.

The plans for a new kitchen area, office and food store, at the cafe owned by Conservative Councillor Tony Ansell were recommended for approval in the report and were subsequently given the go-ahead at the planning meeting.

But the ombudsman said that, even though the council’s own conservation officer recommended amendments be made to the design to “improve its appearance and reduce the impact” on the nearby Grade I listed museum building, this was “omitted” from the report.

Local Government Ombudsman Dr Jane Martin has made a number of recommendations following the error.

She said: “Local people will only have faith in the planning process if applications are considered against the right local and national frameworks.

“This case highlights how this trust can be lost when buildings of exceptional importance are not properly protected.

“I would now urge Northampton Borough Council to consider my report and accept my recommendations to help preserve the area’s assets for future generations.”

The LGO says Grade 1 listings are “rare” and “represent buildings or monuments of exceptional importance.”

However it says, in this case, the council also did not identify the correct legislation when drawing up the report.

The officer writing the report referred to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, where he should have based his recommendation on the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, the Ombudsman said.

A “regular park user” complained to the LGO about the council’s decision.

During the investigation, the watchdog says it also became apparent the council had not consulted with Historic England, then English Heritage, either.

The LGO contacted Historic England, and a representative from that organisation said it was “clear” the café extension would affect the setting of the listed building and the council should have consulted them about the proposals.

The LGO also uncovered correspondence from Historic England which shows this was not the first occasion the council had not consulted properly with them on planning applications affecting historic assets.

To remedy the complaint, the LGO has recommended the council introduce conservation training for all its planning officers and undertake an immediate review of its procedures for dealing with planning applications which affect “heritage assets.”

The council has also been asked to apologise to the man who raised the complaint.

Councillor Tim Hadland, cabinet member for regeneration, planning and enterprise, said: “We accept the ombudsman’s report into this matter and have already begun to implement each of the recommendations made.

“The report did not find that the decision to grant planning consent was wrong, but did find that some of our procedures needed to be improved.

“On this occasion, the service we provide clearly fell short of what people have a right to expect and we apologise.”