The civic site has been earmarked for housing for some time as part of plans to move local authority staff to a purpose-built headquarters at City Hall on the former Vaux site.
Rising maintenance bills and running costs were some of the reasons behind the decision to vacate the ageing Burdon Road base, which opened in 1970 and won a number of awards for its design.
Planning proposals from Vistry Partnerships Ltd aimed to bulldoze the site, its car park and associated structures to make way for up to 265 residential dwellings/apartments.
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This included 145 houses and 120 apartments, with a mix of three-bedroom and four-bedroom homes, as well as one and two-bedroom apartments.
The masterplan of the scheme aims to provide high quality public open spaces and cycling and pedestrian links, improving access to the city centre.
The return of Saint George’s Square
A key feature aims to recreate Saint George’s Square – which was bomb-damaged during the Second World War and lost to redevelopment decades later – with the Grade II-listed Saint George’s House as the focal point.
Developers stressed that the proposals would include three “significant areas of greenspace”, which would be designed to provide recreation for residents and the wider city centre.
Elsewhere, on-site parking would be provided through a combination of on-street allocated parking and in-curtilage parking for residents, as well as visitor spaces and eight electric vehicle charging spaces.
The architecture and streetscape of the scheme would also be sensitive to the parkside location and the Ashbrooke Conservation Area.
Plans were presented for decision at a meeting of the council’s Planning and Highways (East) Committee at City Hall on April 11, 2022.
Council planning officers, recommending the plans for approval, said the scheme would bring “significant benefits” by delivering housing in a “highly sustainable central location” and “enhancing heritage assets”.
Although no affordable housing could be secured through the planning process, councillors heard the applicant would deliver affordable housing via Homes England grant funding.
According to a planning report, this would see at least 68 residential units, around 25% of the site total, being affordable.
Some scheme critics, including the Sunderland Civic Society, raised concerns about the planning application in relation to affordable housing, car parking provision and impacts on residential amenity.
But Historic England, in a consultation statement, said the “enhancing effect” of the proposals would “outweigh the loss of the Civic Centre”.
This included the “strength of the proposal’s layout […] to create an environment that uses the influence of the conservation area to create a distinctive new neighbourhood”.
Although several councillors on the Planning and Highways (East) Committee praised the scheme, some concerns were raised.
Concerns included the impact of construction works on nearby businesses and the consequences of building three-storey town houses close to existing properties in the area.
Cash for parks?
Councillor Michael Dixon said that funding secured from developers, through a section 106 legal agreement, could be used to improve Mowbray Park and Backhouse Park nearby.
However councillors heard that funding as part of this draft agreement was allocated for education, allotment provision, ecology mitigation and the development of a community parking management scheme.
Following discussion, the Planning and Highways (East) Committee approved the plans with a unanimous vote.
Councillor Michael Butler, who chairs the panel, said: “I think it’s a very well thought out development that hopefully will bring new residents to the city centre to actually spend money here and encourage local business.”
The completed homes will be sold under Vistry’s house building brand Linden Homes, with many benefiting from views across Mowbray Park.
A complex demolition programme lasting around 41 weeks will be undertaken to clear the site ready for the new development.
According to a report prepared for councillors, this will see the former civic centre site demolished over ten phases, starting at the southern part of the site and extending northward.
Construction works for the wider development are anticipated to take around five years to complete.
In advance of demolition, developers said they would contact neighbouring residents and businesses who remain concerned to “ensure that all reasonable measures are undertaken to minimise disruption”.
Andrew Rennie, development director for Vistry Partnerships North East, said the redevelopment plans would play a “pivotal part in Sunderland’s regeneration”.
Speaking after the planning meeting, he said:“We aim to create an attractive new residential quarter that sits comfortably within the surrounding architecture, with a focus on green space that encourages community use.
“It will be a fantastic new inclusive neighbourhood with its own distinctive character, providing a new housing offer on the edge of Ashbrooke and Mowbray Park whilst benefiting from the close proximity to the city centre.”
Peter McIntyre, executive director of city development at Sunderland City Council, added: “Having made the move to our new City Hall only a matter of weeks ago, I am delighted to see plans for the former civic centre site given the green light.
“Housing on the outskirts of the city centre will deliver a significant boost to traders in the heart of the city, as people living on the doorstep head in to spend their time and money in shops, bars and restaurants.
“By bookending the city with residential developments – at Riverside Sunderland and the former civic site – we will boost footfall and hopefully – with it – spend too.”