A Sunderland MP is to write to the Government housing minister over a developer’s proposals to transform a city centre office block into 154 “bedsits”.
Angel House, in Borough Road, Sunderland, could be turned into what Azure (Sunderland) Ltd says would be apartments.
But councillors for the area claim the former offices, once home to the benefits service, would only offer residents bedsits, with concerns raised about how the Cambridgeshire-based firm has gone about seeking approval from Sunderland City Council.
Azure has put in a permitted development application - which are normally used by homeowners to carry out work on their home - to change the use of the building.
But Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott and Hendon ward councillors, Barbara McClennan, Victoria O’Neil and Michael Mordey are uneasy that the developer intends to use those rights instead of it being subject to the scrutiny that a full planning application would normally bring.
Ms Elliott is to write to the housing minister Alok Sharma to raise the issue.
Given recent events in London we need to be satisfied that refurbishments such as this meet the most up-to date safety standards, assurances that we do not feel we can be giving as this development is being pushed through the back door using permitted development rights.Councillor Michael Mordey
They also say any application for cladding would have to be submitted under a separate application.
The councillors are due to meet planners and fire service representatives to discuss their concerns in further detail.
Coun Mordey, who says the plans he has seen show the homes would be bedsit-style properties, added: “I acknowledge that this and all other developments need to be signed off by building control.
“However, I am concerned that there is no requirement that this or any other developer use the council’s building control service.
“Instead developers can appoint a private firm to carry out the inspection, leaving the public to rely on the reassurances of the private sector.
“We need to be satisfied that refurbishments such as this meet the most up-to date safety standards, assurances that we do not feel we can be given as this development is being pushed through the using permitted development rights.”
Coun McClennan said: “Permitted development rights are used ordinarily for small home improvements such as an extension or a conservatory – not the conversion of a tower block into ‘154 apartments’.
“By using permitted development rights this avoids the public scrutiny that a full planning application would bring.
“A development of this size and this nature should be required to go through the process of a full planning application.”
The rules set out by Government for such applications cover impact on transport, flooding, noise of surrounding buildings on the proposed occupiers and ground contamination.
Coun O’Neil added: “There are only four tests laid down in the Government guidance that this application can be judged against.
“We are concerned that the full impact of the proposed development cannot be fully considered when judged only against these four very narrow criteria.
“This loophole brought in by changes made by the Coalition Government could potentially put people at risk by reducing the public scrutiny that a full planning application would receive.”
Ms Elliott added: “I’m really concerned that this conversion could go ahead without a full planning application and robust public scrutiny.
“It’s not right that developers are able to convert non-residential buildings into residential tower blocks through the process that is normally used for small home improvements, such as building a conservatory.
“That’s why I have written to the housing minister to ask him to reconsider the loophole introduced by the coalition Government that allows developers to bypass full public scrutiny for developments like this.”
Azure declined to comment when contacted by The Echo.