PLANNING HELL: Houseboat planning victory
A Bristol family’s planning “hell” has ended after councillors took pity and allowed them to finish building their dream home in the harbourside.
Trevor Gray broke down in tears as he spoke of the “bonkers” red tape and confusion that had frustrated his family’s efforts to turn a disused barge in Wapping Wharf into an eco-friendly houseboat.
Mr Gray and his partner Molly Petts have spent two years turning the concrete Ferro barge into a three-bedroom houseboat for them and their two-year-old son Toren.
At no time during 18 months of “daily” communication with the Harbour Authority were they made aware of the need for planning permission for the alterations to the former grain barge at Wapping Wharf, Mr Gray told a planning committee.
Then, suddenly, in July last year – when the family had nearly finished the houseboat and had already sold their former boat home to finance the final works – the council raised legal and planning objections and ordered them to stop the conversion, he said.
Desperate to salvage the situation, Mr Gray submitted a planning application.
But Bristol City Council planning officers recommended it for refusal, despite overwhelming support from residents.
Throwing himself on the mercy of councillors, who granted consent on August 11, Mr Gray explained why he did not seek planning permission at first.
“I never thought for a second I would require it,” he told the committee. “Nobody ever told me I would. Nobody in my circumstances has ever required it before.
“In a nutshell, the council has granted me authority to alter Ferro, let me undertake the works, and then at the end said ‘oh by the way, you need planning and we’re going to refuse it’.
“To me, that’s just bonkers.”
A planning officer said he and his team were obliged to consider the application against planning policy and had “reluctantly” recommended it for refusal.
His report said the Ferro represented a “visual oddity” in the harbourside and its appearance would “cause harm to the character and appearance of this part of the City Docks Conservation Area (and identified key views), and the setting of other nearby heritage assets”.
A previous application to add extra rooms to the Ferro, submitted in December 2020, was withdrawn following advice from the council that “the proposed works were not considered to fall under a householder application”, the report noted.
The council’s head of development control, Gary Collins, said the need for planning permission was a “grey area” for houseboats but the council was “satisfied” the Ferro required planning consent, partly because it did not have a motor.
Green councillor Fi Hance, who gave up her right to vote as a member of the planning committee in order to speak in support of Mr Gray’s application, said: “What is clear is there’s been an embarrassing lack of policy here and confusion from the very beginning about this.
“What is also clear is that the applicant built this development in good faith. You’ve got swathes of neighbours offering support and encouraging the applicant to continue with this.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it as far as I can see…I think it fits in absolutely fine.
“The applicant’s clearly been put through absolute hell, and the officer’s been put in a difficult situation as well, so we need to approve this and move on and try and make sure that no one else is put in this position in the future.”
Two of Ferro’s neighbours also spoke in support of the application, which received 53 letters of support and no objections.
More than 2,400 people signed a petition to allow the “popular and commended self-build project to go ahead” earlier this year after the council threatened to remove the houseboat from its mooring.
Members of the committee, moved by Mr Gray’s emotional plea, voted unanimously to approve his application, on the basis it created “sustainable, waterborne, city-centre accommodation” that would add to the character of the harbourside and not detract from it.
Labour member Philippa Hulme said: “It fits beautifully with the eclectic mix of the harbour: you’ve got apartment blocks that look like boats, you’ve got boats that look like houses. That’s just part of being Bristol. I think it’s fantastic.”
Committee chair Richard Eddy said Mr Gray’s self-build housing scheme was “reasonable” and the harbourside needed to accommodate the needs of Bristolians to live, work and play.
“As a Bristolian, I’m getting rather fed up of increasing Disneyfication of the city docks,” the Conservative councillor said. “It may not be a working, traditional harbour but it’s more than catering for tourism and pleasure.”
Noting that Mr Gray had been “led a bit of a dance” by the council, the committee added a request for the cross-party, multi-agency Harbourside Forum to consider what policy could be developed to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
Mr Gray and Ms Petts, who expressed their “heartfelt gratitude” to their supporters during the meeting, reiterated their thanks afterwards.
Mr Gray told the Local Democracy Reporting Service the council “really need to get their policy sorted out”.
Words: Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporter
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