Fears changes to £15m Whisstocks development will ‘kill the dream’
The redevelopment of one of Suffolk’s most iconic locations could face judicial review amid concerns recent changes would deprive the community in Woodbridge of its “crowning glory”.
Woodbridge Town Council is holding a special meeting next week to discuss the challenge against revisions to the Whisstocks development, which would see its two-storey restaurant split into smaller units and holiday accommodation.
Developers FW Properties claim the change of use is necessary to sell the building, which it says is too big for a single restaurant. But opponents say the loss of the restaurant would be a blow to the project and its aims to breathe new life into the area.
The £15million scheme, which was completed in December 2017, has transformed a derelict boatyard near the famous Tide Mill into a new heritage hub. It includes a mixture of homes, businesses and community buildings, one of which is set to host a replica of the Sutton Hoo burial ship. Further homes were created at the nearby Nunn's Mill.
FW Properties said the scheme would bring economic vitality to the area, which it described as the "jewel" of Woodbridge. Its 2013 planning application highlighted community benefits, jobs, and opportunities to host festivals.
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But a major part of the development - The Chandlery - which was to be a restaurant offering views over the River Deben has remained empty.
FW Properties claimed the building was too big for potential buyers and applied in December to change its use, allowing for the ground floor to be split into two retail units with holiday accommodation upstairs.
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East Suffolk Council (ESC) approved the application in April. But the changes angered some in the town - particularly as the decision was taken by officers.
Peter Ashken, who had been in discussions about buying The Chandlery, said the building was the "keystone" and changing its use would "kill the dream" of what it could offer. He attended Woodbridge Town Council's planning committee on Tuesday to seek support for a judicial review against ESC's decision.
Mr Ashken said the project was now "completely different" to what had been offered in 2013 and accused the developer of not listening to the community.
Speaking after the meeting, he said The Chandlery was the "crowning glory" of the scheme and must not be divided up for more holiday accommodation.
Woodbridge Riverside Trust member Paul Constantine, who wrote a plan to rejuvenate the site in 2012 and is involved in the Saxon ship project, also attended the meeting to raise concerns the development was not fulfilling its potential. "The limits of what this square can do are only those of the imagination," he said. "I'm hoping that this new council can take this chance to turn an almost silent square into the joyful, bustling, meeting place that it deserves to be."
Fellow WRT member, Peter Clay, also criticised the change of use, saying it would deprive the town of stunning views from the upper floor across the Deben.
FW Properties' director Julian Wells responded to the concerns, telling the committee the changes were necessary to find a buyer. He said that while the overall development had been a success, the approach to The Chandlery had been "very wrong". "The vacant space has been marketed by two separate agencies over five years to more than 250 people," he added. "Our research is clearly telling us the restaurant is too big and a cluster of smaller units, together with the holiday homes, will help to bring vibrancy back to that space."
Mr Wells said a family restaurant had already expressed an interest in one of the units and another business was also making inquiries. "Already this is starting to unlock the potential of that space," he added.
Suffolk businessman Jonathan Simper agreed that smaller units would be more marketable.
But Mr Ashken has disputed Mr Wells' comments about viability, claiming it had not sold because it was over-priced, rather than too big. He also questioned why Mr Wells would not agree to sell the entire building, including a flat, which was added to the top floor following an application in 2016. He said investors would be put off by the neighbouring flat, which could lead to noise complaints.
Mr Wells claims he had been flexible on price and had insulated the flat to a high standard to prevent noise issues arising. But Mr Ashken said ESDC should have done its own investigations into the building's viability.
Woodbridge mayor Eamonn O'Nolan confirmed a meeting would he held to discuss the concerns from 7pm on Wednesday at The Shire Hall.
Decision delegated to officers
East Suffolk Council said the change of use application was approved because it complied with its "Development Plan".
A council spokesman said the application had been sent to a referral panel, consisting of the planning committee's chairman and vice-chairman, to consider a report by the lead officer to determine who should make the decision.
"It was concluded that the application did not need to be referred to the planning committee as the proposals accorded with the policies of the Development Plan," the spokesman added. "The permission still enables a restaurant to occupy all or part of the building."
The council also explained why it had not carried out its own investigations into the valuation of the building and its viability. "The proposals that were approved for the commercial units and holiday accommodation accorded with the council's policies so there was no requirement for any further justification," the spokesman added.