A closure-threatened urban farm hailed as a ‘hidden gem’ by families appears to have been saved after controversial plans to enhance the site were given the green light.
The Garden House, in Marple, has been at the center of a long-running planning wrangle since Stockport council rejected initial proposals four years ago.
In the meantime, the Lakes Road visitor attraction has continued to operate without permission as an outdoor visitor attraction.
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An appeal was due to be heard in April.
But an amended scheme – which includes rebuilding the original Garden House to incorporate an audio-visual theatre, cafe and meeting area – has now been waved through by planners.
It no longer seeks to retain the children’s nursery, which had been operating at the site for a number of years.
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However, visitors will still be able to meet the animals in their pens and stables, have lunch in a covered picnic area and enjoy the sensory garden and horticulture zone.
Plans for the 16-acre site – formerly Marple tip – had proven highly contentious, with residents raising concerns about disruption, pollution and road safety, as well as the impact on the green belt.
But while some members of Stockport council’s planning committee remained opposed to the scheme, it was passed by a majority vote at a meeting on Thursday night.
Kevin Swindells, director at The Garden House, has welcomed the decision.
“It’s a great result and the hard work starts today,” he said.
The final proposals include 41 conditions that must be adhered to with a strict timetable.
“It’s been a long process but we would not have been able to do it without the [Garden House] committee and trustees who have shown absolute faith in the project, and I would like to thank the council for voting it through,” Mr Swindells added.
And he believes the farm now has a ‘bright future’, having been in a ‘Catch 22’ situation, where it could not apply to the National Lottery Heritage Fund until planning permission was granted.
“That opens a lot of opportunities for funding and obviously the thing to do now is organize a feasibility study and get plans drawn up in detail,” he said.
“It’s cost an awful lot of money fighting this appeal and the money generated now will be invested in the Garden House to improve facilities for the public.”
He said that the decision would significantly benefit organizations like the Seashell Trust – a Stockport-based special school – which regularly takes groups to the farm.
“We have an opportunity for those guys to not feel stressed with a lot of people out and about. It’s a big advantage,” said Mr Swindells.
And he added that it would be a ‘massive boost’ to two apprentices he would now be able to take on, having previously been prevented from doing so by the council.
The proposals were backed by Councilor Wendy Meikle, when the council’s planning committee met on Thursday night.
“I think the rebuilding of the Garden House will be an absolutely fantastic facility,” she said.
“Not many attractions are free, this will allow those families who can’t afford to go to zoos and safari parks and the like, to take young people to visit.
“Also, it’s not a fair-weather project, where people can sit and enjoy the sun.
“The day we did the site visit it was pretty horrendous – it was wet, damp, muddy – and the applicant is still looking after the animals and so are the young people who work with him.”
Coun Meikle also urged councilors to bear in mind an educational facility was now being proposed for a site which was once a tip.
“Green belt or not, I would prefer to see animals than a load of rubbish,” she said.
Coun John Taylor took a different view, however.
He described the Garden House – built by mill-owner Samuel Oldknow in 1801 – as being a ‘stately ruin’ that should be left as such.
“It’s actually more respectful of that history than doing anything such as this,” he said.
“Because to have a hybrid application for this site is intrusive in the green belt, it’s not an attractive building overall, it’s been cobbled together to justify the removal of other bits and bobs.
“I don’t mind a bit of consolidation but I don’t think this starts to meet the very special circumstances which is supposed to be the target.”
Coun Taylor argued that the ‘very special circumstances’ required to build in the green belt had not been provided by the applicant.
“You have to show that the essential objective could not reasonably be met in a less harmful way,” he said.
“I don’t even accept that the essential objective is essential.”
As part of the planning conditions, the applicant will be obliged to carry out highways improvement to Lakes Road, Faywood Drive and Arkwright Road, including £7,500 to fund additional parking restrictions.
But Coun Taylor was unconvinced, referring to the ‘treatise’ from the authority’s highways engineer.
“There’s plenty of worry there about the safety of pedestrians, about the condition of the road and about can the capacity of the road cope with what it’s previously experienced,” he said.
He told the committee that he wanted to see something that was ‘unobtrusive’ to those traveling past – rather than to – the site, and was ‘respectful of the fact that it is green belt’.
“I just don’t think this delivers this in any way, shape or form,” he added.
However, chair Coun Andy Sorton reminded councilors that – should the council lose the pending appeal – there would be no guarantee the applicant would be bound by them 41 conditions set by the council.
The plans were passed by a majority vote, with eight members voting for and four against.
Stockport council met at Fred Perry House on Thursday night (February 10).
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