Public inquiry starts into plan for car park on ‘common land’ linked to new Durham County Council HQ

Development chiefs have admitted failure to secure permission to build on protected land would not halt controversial plans for a new council HQ.

Tuesday, 27th April 2021, 9:30 pm
The new planned facility

Durham County Council (DCC) secured approval for the multi-million pound riverside base at the Sands, in Durham City, in 2019.

But the local authority is now having to fight to prove it can construct a car park for staff and councillors on ‘common land’ formerly used as a coach park.

Today (Tuesday, April 27) marked the first day of a public probe into the scheme, led by an independent government assessor, to rule on whether the council should be allowed to revoke the site’s status to make way for the 60-space car park.

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Opponents argued the new office, to replace the current ageing facility at Aykley Heads, could still be built, but with the proposed car park omitted to preserve the site as it is.

“If, for example, the common land application wasn’t approved, the scheme doesn’t have to be built – the car park doesn’t have to be finished off,” said a planning law specialist acting for the City of Durham Parish Council and the Durham City Freemen.

“There’s no imperative in planning law to finish off a scheme, you can do all the headquarters building then just stop there and leave the existing car park on the land.”

Henry Jones, a principal planning officer at the county council, admitted that ‘as a general rule’ it was not strictly necessary to complete ‘every element’ of an approved planning application.

Part of DCC’s application to de-register the land at the Sands included nominating a ‘replacement’ site at Aykley Heads.

Outlining the council’s case, lawyer Stephen Whale, insisted the replacement site was an appropriate choice.

He said: “[The car park site] is 0.17 hectares – less than six per cent of the area of common land known as the Sands.

“The land was used as a municipal car park, then as a coach park and another municipal car park is now being constructed.

“The replacement land is 1.4 hectares – more than ten times the size of the released land – and is perfectly conducive to the exercise of the [historic] grazing rights, although this is unlikely ever to be exercised.”

The inquiry is expected to resume via videolink on Wednesday, April 28.