Complaints to council over impact of office conversion

Refuge House in Enfield Town is at the centre of a row over Enfield Council’s handling of office-to-residential conversions, reports James Cracknell

Refuge House (right) is in the process of being converted from offices into 76 flats, which will sit just a few metres from homes in both Fyfield Road and Calder Close
Refuge House (right) is in the process of being converted from offices into 76 flats, which will sit just a few metres from homes in both Calder Close and Fyfield Road (left)

Residents living near a former office block now being converted into “rabbit-hutch homes” have made a string of complaints against the development amid fears over its local impact.

Refuge House in River Front, Enfield Town, is situated at the end of a residential street and looms over several two-storey homes. Residents fear the building’s conversion into high-density housing will have a considerable impact on noise and parking and have jointly submitted a formal complaint to Enfield Council.

The residents are also claiming developer Paul Simon Homes submitted “inaccurate information” regarding waste collection to support its planning application and that the council did not follow due process in its handling of a pre-commencement application last year, while later stifling attempts to obtain more information about the scheme by repeatedly delaying its response to requests made under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

Underscoring their concerns, the residents say in their complaint that “[council] officers approved the plans for waste collection arrangements in the knowledge that doing so would lead to Fyfield Road being routinely blocked and congested”.

Refuge House is one of a number of old office blocks in the borough that have been granted permission to be turned into flats under ‘permitted development rights’, which have given developers a fast-track route to building new homes since the rights were extended to offices in 2013.

Such schemes attracted considerable controversy because they also allowed developers to bypass standard rules for minimum dwelling sizes and access to outdoor space and natural light. This led to a law change last year, whereby any office-to-residential conversions must now meet national planning standards. But this does not apply to Refuge House because its original application was made in 2019 before the change came into effect.

Calder Close resident Shiv Coard lives in a flat next to Refuge House which will be just a few metres away from a new waste storage area when the conversion is complete. She told the Dispatch: “It was lovely when I first moved here because it was an office block and they were away at the weekends and evenings, but now there will be 76 flats there.

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“Right next to my garden there is going to be a waste storage area. There is going to be a disgusting smell outside my bedroom, but they don’t care.”

The “inaccurate information” the residents referred to in their complaint relates to the distance bin collection workers will need to pull the large bins stored in the waste collection area. The original application claimed the distance was within the ten metres guidance, but residents later discovered it was 18 metres. The time needed to pull large bins this distance led to concerns refuse lorries would block Fyfield Road for long periods on collection days, since parked cars would often stop them from reversing into the site.

After this was discovered, concerns were raised with a local councillor, who requested the pre-commencement application be considered by the council’s planning committee to allow waste collection arrangements to be debated. But this request was refused by the committee chair.

A council spokesperson said: “The council’s handling of this application has been comprehensively investigated through the council’s corporate complaints process.

“Our investigation has shown no evidence of failings by the council. We understand that residents may not be happy with the outcome of these planning decisions, however the council considered the planning applications correctly.”

Councils have long had the ability to block permitted development applications by passing an Article 4 Direction, with many local authorities having done so, including neighbouring Barnet. But Enfield Council has blamed the government for scuppering its own move to do this.

The spokesperson added: “In this particular case Enfield Council did not have any power as a local authority to reject three of the six applications at the time they were submitted. The council is frustrated that government will not support the introduction of an Article 4 in our borough which would give us control over whether we permit office to residential conversions.

“While we share residents’ concerns about these kinds of applications and believe that we have administered this application correctly we respect that residents have the option of seeking redress through the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.”

Matt Burn, a Fyfield Close resident and campaigner with Better Homes Enfield, said: “The council had plenty of opportunities to introduce an Article 4 Direction which would have stopped office blocks like Refuge House being converted into rabbit-hutch homes. Blaming the government is a convenient excuse for their own failings.

“Residents want the scheme improved, but the council has again failed to do this. It’s shocking the council appears determined to ensure this scheme proceeds in its current form, regardless of the impact it will have on people who will live in these sub-standard flats.”

Paul Simon Homes did not respond to a request for comment.

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