PLANS to convert former council offices into flats have been given the go-ahead, despite traffic concerns.

This week, Durham County Council’s area planning committee discussed an application for 1 Kensington, in Bishop Auckland.

The building, off McIntyre Terrace, was previously occupied by the council’s social services department.

But ‘change of use’ plans, lodged in March, aim to convert it into eight flats.

The building can be converted without planning consent under permitted development rules but the proposal was put to the council for 'prior approval' after concerns about traffic and congestion in the area were raised.

During consultation,  several objection letters were lodged, alongside objections from Bishop Auckland Town Council which criticised the lack of off-street parking.

Councillor Tanya Tucker, who represents Woodhouse Close, said the flats would “exacerbate” issues by potentially generating an extra 16 vehicles.

She said: “On the surface, this proposed development is a good idea. It’s a good use of a building and any development in Bishop Auckland that brings in revenue or new people has to be a good use.

“But the biggest problem we have in the Cockton Hill area and the terraces behind is that residents can’t get parked outside their own homes.”

She added: “There is a manic need for parking in this area but there’s nowhere to put it.

“If you know this area, given the fact that it’s a death trap waiting to happen, it would be irresponsible for us to proceed.”

Durham County Council chairman and division councillor, John Lethbridge, wrote to the committee with similar fears, saying increased development around Bishop Auckland had left road networks at “breaking point.”

In the context of anti-social behaviour issues, Coun Lethbridge added the applicant had an “obligation of duty” around future tenants.

Under planning rules around ‘prior notification’, councillors were asked to decide the application solely on highways, flood risk, contamination risk and the impact of noise from commercial premises in the area.

Council officers said the proposal was not expected to worsen traffic problems, as the previous office had 15 rooms.

An agent for the applicant said the site is in a sustainable location– with good access to public transport and cycle parking onsite. And, responding to antisocial behaviour concerns, the meeting heard a management firm would vet future tenants moving in to the property.

Despite concerns from residents, councillors said they had no option but to approve as issues around traffic were not severe enough to withstand an appeal by the applicant.

But Coun Fraser Tinsley said the application summed up problems with the planning system, including “taking away the power of local communities” on local issues.

He added: “Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any other option here other than to go along with what the officers are recommending.

“We’re essentially sat here with gags and handcuffs on but it’s the system that has put us in this position.

“One thing I can say, is if this wasn’t to happen and it wasn’t to be redeveloped for some type of use, the building could sit there and rot for a long period and that itself would have its own problems.

“Sometimes your faced with the decision between the devil and the deep blue sea.

“What is the least worst option to go for.”

Coun Sam Zair– who voted against the plans– added eight flats were “too many” and claimed the plans were for “profit and profit only”.

He also told the committee there is a “massive problem” with traffic volume in the area with serious accidents and even fatalities on Cockton Hill Road, near the site.

Following discussion, councillors voted in line with officers recommendations that prior notification was not needed.

But committee chairman, Coun John Clare, said the developer had a duty to bring forward housing which would benefit the area.

“A planning committee applies rules and they’re given to us by other people, what you have heard today is we’re not happy with the rules in many respects either but we can’t go against them,” he said.

“If we did, the applicant would appeal and win that appeal and not only would we lose anyway we would have substantial costs to find.”

Addressing the applicant’s agent, he added: “What you have heard today is deep concerns about the nature of the people who are going to move in, how well it’s going to be managed, what kind of a place its going to be.

“While you’re not required by the rules to be constructive in that respect, there is a moral obligation to bring housing to the area which is constructive and will build the area.

“I appeal for you to go back to your client and carry the clear feelings of the community and ask them to be good landlord and good builder.”

Highways officers offered to work with ward councillors to explore the feasibility of a local permit parking scheme.