Residents voice discontent with amended La Sagesse plans

The local community expressed their views on Shepherd Offshore’s revised plans to develop the site of Jesmond Towers, formerly La Sagesse school, at a public meeting on Monday evening.

Proposed view of Jesmond Towers

Around 90 residents filled St George’s church hall to discuss the altered proposals, which Shepherd Offshore submitted in May after an interim report by the council heavily criticised the original application.

The site contains the grade II* listed 19th century mansion Jesmond Towers and is part of the Jesmond Dene Conservation Area.

Lib Dem councillor for North Jesmond Peter Breakey chaired the meeting, which was also attended by planning officers from the council and representatives of Shepherd Offshore.

Since the original application, residents have expressed a number of concerns about the proposed development, including the loss of playing fields and green space, traffic issues, the impact on the visual character of the site and wider area, and the loss of or damage to trees. These issues were discussed at the first public meeting about the development in January, as reported by JesmondLocal.

On Monday night, many in attendance reiterated these concerns, saying the amendments to the application did not address the issues that had been raised. One resident described the changes as “cosmetic”.

The revisions include some internal changes to the appartments in Jesmond Towers, reductions in height and changes of appearance to other buildings and various modifications to the landscaping design of the site. Details of the alterations are available on the planning section of the council’s website, with Table 1 providing a guide to their location within the application.

Rex Winter of Jesmond Action Group said that, rather than being appeased by the amended plans, residents’ views against the application had become “more entrenched” and that new issues had now been raised.

During the meeting, Winter argued that the proposals had all the characteristics of an enabling development, as defined by English Heritage, whereby an applicant argues a development is necessary, despite being at odds with planning policy, in order to finance the upkeep of a heritage asset.

He claimed that although Shepherd Offshore used the cost of maintaining Jesmond Towers to justify the scale of the development, it did not want to define the application as enabling in order to avoid the level of financial scrutiny that would be necessary as a result.

Shepherd Offshore argues that the development is in line with policy and therefore define it as “leveraged”, rather than enabling. The council is in the process of assessing this argument and is consulting English Heritage on the matter.

Our reporter Sophie Bauckham spoke to Rex Winter at the end of the meeting:

Locals pressed Shepherd Offshore’s representatives on how much money the development needed to raise in order to finance the restoration of Jesmond Towers – and therefore how large the development needed to be – but were disappointed to find they did not have a number to hand. None of the representatives present was able to offer an indicative figure either.

One resident accused Shepherd Offshore of treating the local community “with contempt” and characterised the application process as “death by a thousand cuts,” suggesting the applicants intend to keep returning with slightly revised plans until the council and local residents cave in.

The application’s economic viability assessment shows an operating profit of £5,373,573 and includes costs of restoration work on individual parts of Jesmond Towers, including the facade, roof and art gallery. However, Cllr Breakey requested Shepherd Offshore provide the council with a simpler set of condensed figures, indicating the total cost of necessary restorative work on the listed building, set against the expected profit.

It was also claimed that Shepherd Offshore had erected a new set of gates without informing architect Cyril Winskell, or obtaining planning permission and listed building consent. Winskell, who attended the meeting, said the gates would have to be removed and replacements would be built in the style of the 19th century originals.

Despite residents’ discontent with the application, Shepherd Offshore’s reperesentatives said they had taken into consideration the concerns raised by the council and the community.

The council will continue to assess the application, with a target decision date of either 20th July or 10th August.