FEARS have emerged that heritage houses in desperate need of repair are being put at risk by delays in the council planning process.

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Property owners and surveyors, who have accused Babergh District Council’s conservation team of operating in a manner that is “detrimental” to the conservation of listed buildings in its area, are calling for radical changes to the way applications are assessed.

The call comes after the owners of a 15th Century house in Kersey, who want to remove a brick floor to stop the property from becoming waterlogged, were forced to have their case determined by the Government’s Planning Inspectorate after Babergh twice exceeded the statutory deadline for making a decision.

Liz Crosbie and her husband Professor Edward Higgs have paid out nearly £30,000 on five different applications relating to Little Manor in the past three years, but still haven’t been given approval to make the changes needed to save their home from eventual collapse.

Last night, a spokesman for Babergh defended the authority’s listed building policies, but Ms Crosbie said: “We have some of the finest medieval buildings in Suffolk and the owners need help and support to maintain them to the highest possible standards instead of being hindered and driven to the point of bankruptcy and desperation.

Only a third of applications are processed within 13-week target

BETTER pre-application advice could help prevent many problems and delays in the planning process, according to Babergh’s committee chairman Peter Beer.

A newly-published performance monitoring report shows that just 37.04% of major planning applications are determined by the council within 13 weeks, which is well below the national target of 60%. The document highlights planning as an area of the council’s work that is “significantly off track”.

Mr Beer said: “We certainly accept that there have been problems in the planning department across the board and we are putting improvements in place, including the pre-application advice we give.

“We want to encourage developers to have preliminary discussions on applications – including for heritage properties – which could help highlight some of the potential problems earlier.

“We have spent £75,000 bringing in more staff but we currently only have one heritage officer for the whole of Babergh and Mid-Suffolk. We really need another one because as we are a rural area, we have a lot of heritage applications.”

Mr Beer said the council was working to shift a backlog of applications, adding: “We are really trying to step things up by putting in additional meetings. There will be an extra development committee meeting in March and we may increase the number of planning meetings to fortnightly, which is something I will be supporting.”

“We need to address the damp because it’s threatening the historical fabric of the building, but the house has now been rendered uninhabitable by the exploration work that Babergh has asked us to do.

“We have taken advice from Babergh, spent £3,000 coming up with each application only to be told that a conservation officer ‘doesn’t like it’ so we have to start all over again.

“I am afraid that the council has a conservation department that has lost any sense of what it is for, which is to conserve buildings.”

Chartered surveyor Sam Thornton from Sudbury, who was involved in the sale of Little Manor, said the building was in an “appalling” condition when it was sold. He believes the property is one of several applications that have been held up for months because council conservation officers are able to put their own interpretation on guidelines relating to listed properties.

He said: “Unfortunately if you look at the legislation these officers are working with, they are able to impose their own personal views, which are at variance with the acknowledged experts and suppliers of the materials that are specialised for the repair of buildings. We just want to see a sensible approach to these things, which secures the future of these important buildings.”

A Babergh spokesman defended the council’s conservation team, which he said provided help and advice to all listed building owners. He said: “By their very nature, listed buildings can be steeped in architectural history, which is why it is important to understand how they have evolved, and to manage proposed alterations or interventions to safeguard their fabric and integrity.

“As this process can be time consuming for all concerned, owners of listed properties are encouraged to make early enquiries if they are proposing to undertake this type of work.”

The council declined to comment on Little Manor.

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