Legal flaws in council decision to grant planning permission, Cranston J says
The High Court has quashed a decision by a Surrey council which would have resulted in the former home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being divided into three separate terraced houses.
Mr Justice Cranston said the Conan Doyles lived at Undershaw, near Haslemere, from 1897 until the death of Sir Arthur’s wife Louise in 1906.
Many of the Sherlock Holmes stories were written there, including The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Sir Arthur entertained well-known writers such as JM Barrie and Bram Stoker.
Giving judgment in R (on the application of Gibson) v Waverley Borough Council  EWHC 1472 (Admin), Cranston J said Sir Arthur sold the house, which is listed Grade II, in 1921.
It became a hotel before being sold in 2004 to a company called Fossway Ltd.
Cranston J said there was no security at the site and the empty building “began to deteriorate”, forcing the council to install a temporary roof and security system in 2007 and reclaim the cost from Fossway.
He said Fossway had “clearly bought Undershaw for its development potential” and applications for planning permission to convert it into smaller homes and build additional houses were initially rejected by the council.
However, in June 2012, the council’s planning committee voted in favour of a redevelopment scheme.
“The scheme of development was to divide Undershaw to create a terrace of three houses, with the result that each of the main reception rooms of the original house would be in separate dwellings,” Cranston J said.
“New doors, windows and staircases would be installed. The proposals entailed some demolition; the erection of a new three-storey east wing to provide five new townhouses, and the conversion of the stable block within the curtilage of the listed building into garages.
“Part of the proposal was to erect a gazebo within the grounds, which would be open to the public and provide information about Undershaw and Conan Doyle.”
Cranston J said there were 1,360 objections to the 2010 proposals, including from the claimant, John Gibson, author and editor of books on Conan Doyle and director of the Undershaw Preservation Trust.
Haslemere Town Council objected, along with Sir Christopher Frayling, ex-chairman of the Arts Council, Julian Barnes, who had set his novel Arthur and George in Undershaw, the crime writer Ian Rankin and Stephen Fry.
“The Victorian Society, which campaigns to save the best examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, stated that the ideal solution would be the renovation of Undershaw and its use as a single dwelling again,” Cranston J said.
“The proposed subdivision of the house into three separate dwellings and the large replacement extension would inevitably have a detrimental impact on its character.”
The claimant told the planning committee that there was now a “very interested party” who had applied for a change of use from a hotel to a single dwelling house.
Mr Justice Cranston said the “optimum use” for Undershaw was as a single dwelling house and there were “legal flaws” in Waverley Council’s decision to approve Fossway’s planning application.
Cranston J said the planning officer should have referred the Fossway scheme back to the committee for reconsideration in the light of the application for a change of use to a single dwelling and Fossway’s marketing exercise was “far from sufficient” to demonstrate that the market for a single house had been adequately tested.
The judge said the council had not met its obligation to consult English Heritage and reasons given for granting approval were “positively misleading”.
Councillor Bryn Morgan, responsible for planning at Waverley Borough Council, said the council would discuss the judgment with the developers.
“Sadly the decision by the High Court places the future of the building in doubt once again,” he said.
“The poor condition of the building will now only get worse as a result of this decision.”