PLANS to boost room numbers at a house in multiple occupation (HMO) have been approved – despite concerns about rising levels of student flats.

Durham County Council’s area planning committee discussed plans for a property at 77 Whinney Hill, Durham city which included a two-storey side extension to the student HMO – increasing the number of rooms from four to six.

Although the plans were recommended for approval, they sparked concerns from City of Durham Parish Council.

Fears included the impact on neighbours from the “intensification of student use” and claims the plan clashed with the council’s interim planning policy around student accommodation.

Whinney Hill Community Group also objected saying the extension would result in a loss of garden space and fail to reflect the character of the area.

Councillors were told the authority was unable to rely on student accommodation policy as a reason for refusal. This was informed by a recent appeal decision for similar HMO plans at Hawthorn Terrace.

In the case, a planning inspector concluded that if extensions to existing HMOs do not alter the overall percentage of HMOs in an area, they should not be refused on this basis alone.

Coun John Ashby, of City of Durham Parish Council, raised concerns about the move.

He told the meeting: “One appeal decision about extensions is referenced in the report and that in my mind is not a sound basis for weakening the policy.

“Each inspector has a decision that is made on a particular case and can’t and shouldn’t be taken as precedent.

“It’s essential in the view of the parish council, that the council’s planning authority takes a resolute stance against ever creeping additions of yet more student accommodation in neighbourhoods such as Whinney Hill which has excessive student accommodation already.”

The meeting heard Durham County Council have shifted their stance towards HMO extensions in their emerging local plan.

However, planners confirmed that the local plan itself can’t be given weight until it is adopted following a public examination.

Applicant, Stephen Shaw, stressed that the HMO plans were about “increasing existing amenity” for tenants.

He added that council officers had no issues with relevant policies around impact on neighbours or the conservation area.

The committee’s legal officer added refusing the application would leave the council open to a risk of costs on appeal.

During debate, the plans proved divisive with counter proposals to both approve and reject the plans.

Coun David Freeman said the interim student accommodation policy still stands although the council are looking to phase it out longer term.

He added that extensions in Whinney Hill were rare and would have a potential visual impact on the area.

“The development over the road on the former school site is hopefully bringing residents back to the area and what we want is residents, not more students,” he said.

But Coun David Brown said the HMO site was the only place in the area where a side extension would be “appropriate.”

The plans were approved by a majority vote of 7-5.