Controversial plans to turn a historic Bath hospital into a 160-bed hotel have been approved after opposing threats of legal challenges.
The Fragrance Group, which bought the Royal Mineral Water Hospital in 2018 for £21.5million, warned it would lodge another appeal if Bath and North East Somerset Council refused its revised application.
Now opponents say the authority could face a judicial review after branding the decision unlawful and alleging that councillors had been put under pressure to approve the scheme – a claim denied by planning committee members.
Following the committee’s decision, Fragrance Group representative Kevin Murphy confirmed the ongoing appeal would be dropped.
Addressing members on 28th July, he said the proposals would secure the long-term future of the listed building, create 120 jobs and boost Bath’s economy to the tune of £35million, supporting the city’s post-Covid recovery.
The application was met with more than 460 objections and more than 500 people signed an open letter urging the council to “protect our heritage for future generations”.
Despite refusing the original plans, committee members accepted the principle of turning the former hospital into a hotel.
Objector Jane Samson from Bath Campaigns said: “There are no significant public benefits to this proposal. The benefits are private and commercial. The wrong decision here could set a very dangerous precedent for heritage assets.
“Please understand that if the error is not averted the decision will be challenged in judicial review as an error in law.”
Her colleague John Mountford said it was “astonishing” for officers to say it was not the planning system’s role to intervene in the market, despite them recognising that Bath does not need any more hotel accommodation.
He said: “The planners are supposed to make democratic decisions that benefit all members of our communities. Their job is to preserve the character of our beautiful city.
“Our heritage assets are not cash cows when money is tight.”
Another objector said the developer’s threat of another appeal “looks like a tactic to put pressure on you as decisions makers with the menace of a costs award”.
Councillor Duncan Hounsell insisted that committee members had not come under pressure.
He said: “Certain people in the public misunderstand what our role is. We aren’t decision makers you would’ve found in the Soviet Union. Our only responsibility is to see if the application is policy compliant.”
Recommending approval, officers said Fragrance Group had overcome all the previous reasons for refusal.
The plans attracted some notable supporters. Historic England judged that the level of harm being caused had been minimised as far as possible, while the Bath Preservation Trust said the reduced height, scale and massing meant the scheme was much improved.
Likewise, the Abbey Residents’ Association concluded that the developers had made a “serious attempt” to address the issues and come up with a “reasonably convincing solution”.
Cllr Paul Crossley added: “The only good outcome is one you agree with so you’re always going to upset people one way or the other, particularly with a controversial one like this.
“I’ve been really upset to hear the implications of malpractice going on here.
“I think what we’ve got is a really interesting application that’s moved on quite considerably from the previous submission.
“I think the applicant has listened carefully to what was said. This application deserves to be approved.”
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter