Luxury flats planned for council car park

IAN MacKELLAR A BLOCK of luxury flats for London commuters could be built on the site of Huntingdonshire District Council s headquarters car park, instead of part of the £17.6million office complex originally planned, it emerged this week. The move follo


A BLOCK of luxury flats for London commuters could be built on the site of Huntingdonshire District Council's headquarters car park, instead of part of the £17.6million office complex originally planned, it emerged this week.

The move follows protests from residents of Huntingdon's St Mary's Street, who were less than enthralled by the prospect of being overlooked by bureaucrats, and the council's failure to get English Heritage to agree its plans for converting nearby Grade II* listed Castle Hill House into apartments.

If councillors agree to the change, the current crumbling Pathfinder House headquarters building will still be demolished, but it will be replaced by two office complexes - one on the current site, the other fronting the ring road - and the flats across the road from Victorian and Edwardian terraced properties in St Mary's Street.

Castle Hill House - built in 1786 and later the home of the World War II Pathfinder Squadron that played a crucial part in settling the outcome of hostilities - would be refurbished as HDC offices instead of being converted, as originally planned, into luxury apartments. Although originally sympathetic to the conversion plans, the heritage body is believed to have balked at the idea of adding full-height wings to both ends of the building and sub-dividing the existing space to make it a more attractive proposition for developers.

In any case, the basement and attic are likely to be better suited to office space than living accommodation.

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The changed plans, which will require a modified planning application, are cost-neutral and will not add to the three-year development process, which started a year ago, council leader, Councillor Ian Bates, told The Hunts Post. Work on the first of the other two office blocks, a four-storey structure fronting Castle Moat Road, and some smaller buildings could begin this summer or autumn, if the Government gives the project a green light.

"But we want to do the right thing for Castle Hill House," Cllr Bates insisted.

The first phase of the HQ project is the new £6million council depot, Eastfield House, just off the A141 north of Spittals, which is almost complete. When the refuse and recycling fleet and other operational activities move there within the next few weeks - taking the fleet of refuse trucks off the historic streets of Godmanchester - some staff from Pathfinder House will be able to shift to the vacated premises across the river in Godmanchester, where they will stay until the new HQ is finished.

When the ring road office building is complete, other staff can move in and demolition work on Pathfinder House can go ahead.

The 900 square metre two-and-a-half-storey apartment block is likely to be the second phase, following a new planning application. Government approval is needed because HDC is not allowed to give itself planning permission.

But the change of plan could have other implications. The council, which wants employees not to drive to work unnecessarily, had planned substantially to reduce the number of parking spaces available on the site. But the need to provide sufficient spaces for residents of the flats could put additional pressure on the space available for council employees.

What will also stick in planners' throats is that the flats are likely to be a magnet for London commuters - in marked contrast to HDC's deliberate policy of discouraging people who live here from working outside the district.

Councillor Jonathan Gray, chairman of one of the council's influential scrutiny panels which are to consider the options, said this week: "Huntingdon has seen an upsurge in high quality apartment developments. This site is ideal. It is close to the town centre and more importantly the railway station".

Castle Hill House could still be sold if future changes to working arrangements meant it became surplus to requirements, HDC said.

Richard Preston, the council's head of technical services who is masterminding the move, said the St Mary's Street building was always intended to be of residential scale to match the houses opposite. Although the change would be broadly cost-neutral, there might be a small financial benefit to the council, he added.

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