Illegal Demolition of Victorian Cottages Retrospectively Authorised

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Balancing the desirability of conservation against the need for more new homes is a constant challenge faced by planning professionals. In a guideline High Court case on point, the illegal demolition of three Victorian cottages in an urban area with exceptionally high housing demand was retrospectively authorised.

The cottages, set in a conservation area, were the last vestiges of a late 19th-century housing development and were surrounded by modern apartment blocks. After they were torn down without planning permission, the local authority issued enforcement notices requiring their complete reconstruction in facsimile.

After the site’s owner appealed, however, a government planning inspector quashed the notices and granted retrospective planning permission for the demolition works. Noting that the cottages were not listed, he described them as remnants of the past in a sea of modern development. They had no major architectural merit and the minimal harm that their demolition had caused to the conservation area was outweighed by the benefit of freeing up the site for housing development.

In challenging that decision, the council argued that it was irrational to describe as beneficial demolition works which had resulted in the loss of historically important buildings and which may well have amounted to a criminal offence. The site had been left vacant and no firm proposals had been put forward for its redevelopment.

However, in dismissing the appeal, the Court noted that the purpose of enforcement notices is remedial, rather than punitive. In those circumstances, any criminality or affront to the rule of law had to be put to one side. Given the site’s prime location in an area of high housing need, the inspector was entitled to conclude that a viable redevelopment proposal would emerge in due course and that it was highly likely that demolition of the cottages would shortly have been authorised in any event.

R on the Application of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government & Anr.

Rex Cowell