Controversial plans by Sedgemoor District Council to convert Highbridge’s former library building into two new flats have been recommended for approval by the council’s own planning case officer.

The proposals – which have been opposed by Burnham and Highbridge Town Council and been branded as “madness” and “disgraceful” by Highbridge Chamber of Trade – are set to be considered by district councillors on Sedgemoor’s development control committee next Tuesday (April 16th).

Sedgemoor District Council, which owns Alpha House in Market Street, has submitted plans for a ‘conversion of former library space into two flats.’ Highbridge library closed down at the end of 2018 due to cost-cutting despite a high-profile local campaign to save it.

A Town Council spokesperson said: “Our members objected to this application on the grounds that there were insufficient flood mitigation measures, it was contrary to the Neighbourhood Plan as it was a loss of retail space in the Retail Centre, and was an over-development of the site.”

But in a new report on the application to councillors, Sedgemoor District Council’s case officer recommends that the application is approved.

Liam Evans, case officer, writes: “The proposed change of use and extension of the existing ground floor of the building to two one-bedroom flats will be appropriate and compatible in scale, use and appearance with the existing built environment in the locality and will not result in a significant impact on the vitality of the area or the amenity of nearby properties.”

Referring to policies within the local plan and neighbourhood plan that seek appropriate complementary uses within the district centre of Highbridge, he says it is considered that the proposal would comply with the policy.

“The development is consistent with the pattern of development in the area which contains a mix of use including residential, retail, office, drinking establishments and hot food takeaways. The proposal is also consistent with the conversion of the remainder of the ground floor, which was granted consent on a delegated basis in 2017.”

Sedgemoor’s case offer also responds to objections regarding the change of use and loss of what is considered to be potential retail space.

He says: “A public library is a D1 use (non-residential institution) and therefore to convert to a shop on a permanent basis a planning application would be required. The space, as existing, does not currently contribute to the footfall of the town centre and while the introduction of a retail use within the library space would also be complimentary to the function of the district centre, that is not the proposal before the Council presently. The proposal should be determined on its own merits rather than viewed against a theoretical proposal that has not been submitted.”

“On the basis that the proposal will not result in the loss of a retail unit within the District Centre the proposal would not be contrary to the above neighbourhood plan policy.”

Sedgemoor’s case offer adds that “the flats contained within the development would be in line with the national space standards for 1 bedroom units capable of being occupied by 2 persons.”

“While the Town Council have raised concerns regarding an overdevelopment of the site, no additional works are required to facilitate the change of use and all accommodation will be contained within the existing building. The flats will comply with National Space Standards and therefore two acceptably sized flats will be provided without significant impact on the appearance of the surrounding area.”

“The residential use of the ground floor will be compatible with the existing residential use throughout the building and therefore amenity should be maintained.”

“No parking is included within the scheme. However, the site is within very close proximity of the town centre, ASDA (240m), bus stops (15m) and the local train station (180m). Therefore, the occupants of the flats would be within walking distance of many of the local facilities, services and amenities the town has to offer and would not result in a reliance on private vehicles. The site is also adjacent to a council car park.”

Addressing flooding concerns, he continues: “the site is within Flood Zone 3, much like the whole of Highbridge. In accordance with advice set out within the National Practice Guidance, the proposal involves the change of use of a part of a building and therefore the Sequential Test is not required.”

“With regards to the Exceptions Test the proposal is for ground floor only flats. The plans confirm that both of the flats will have unrestricted internal access to the first floor of the building which will provide a safe refuge area.”

Mike Murphy, Chairman of Highbridge Chamber of Trade, described the “disgraceful” plan as “madness.” He told town councillors last month: “Highbridge is being swamped with more and more housing with no amenities. I am very concerned and strongly recommend this application is turned down.”

“Are we really going to lose a valuable retail unit or service hub for another two new flats in an area that has been designated by Sedgemoor as a main retail area?”

Sedgemoor district councillors will give their verdict on the application on Tuesday at a meeting in Bridgwater.