The Redevelopment of the Coopers Site

Question: When is a contaminated building not a contaminated building?
Answer: When a developer can make more money out of it.

William Cooper was a nineteenth century veterinary surgeon who came to live in Berkhamsted High Street and established a local practice. He sought a remedy for scab and other diseases of sheep, and this led to his invention of Cooper's Sheep Dip, which was later exported worldwide.

In 1843, Mr. Cooper established a factory to manufacture his sheep dip on a site bounded by the High Street, Ravens Lane, Chapel Street and Manor Street. Production was transferred elsewhere in the mid 20th. century, but the office space and printing works were retained by the company. Coopers was sold to the Wellcome Foundation, which later merged with pharmaceutical giant Glaxo. The buildings remained in use until 1999, when Glaxo Wellcome announced its decision to leave Berkhamsted and redevelop the site for residential use.

The site is surrounded by terraced houses, mainly from the Victorian era. There is also a doctors' surgery in Manor Street, which is surrounded on three sides by the site. Neighbours made clear that they wished to see the historic buildings retained and converted into flats. The site is located in a designated Conservation Area; this means that the presumption is in favour of retaining buildings unless it can be demonstrated that they cannot be re-used.

My suspicions were first aroused by Glaxo Wellcome's "Public consultation" over the future of the site. A representative of Glaxo Wellcome's consultants telephoned me and other members of Berkhamsted Town Council. I said that my preference for the site was for retention of the buildings and their conversion into lower-cost one and two-bedroom flats: a type of housing we are particularly short of in Berkhamsted. The representative then tried hard to convince me that I thought three-bedroom units were equally acceptable. This was manipulation of opinion, not consultation.

The manufacture of sheep dip on the site had involved the use of arsenic. Glaxo Wellcome commissioned a survey from Laing Technology Group which claimed that the whole site was contaminated and recommended total demolition of all the buildings. Local people were not convinced that the contamination survey gave an accurate impression of the amount of contamination on the site. It appeared to have been arranged so that the majority of samples were taken from the most contaminated areas. No remediation strategies other than total demolition seemed to have been investigated. I suspect that the conclusion - that all the buildings have to come down - came first, and the evidence was then arranged to fit.

Neighbours formed themselves into the Conservation Area Residents' Association of Berkhamsted (CARAB for short) in order to oppose the plans for demolition. Some interesting facts then started to come to light. One of the buildings on the site, now known as Cooper House, had already been converted to flats which had been occupied for some time. Only limited decontamination had been needed. Similarly, when the the Manor Street Surgery had been extended a few years previously, soil analysis had found that little decontamination was necessary. Office accommodation on the site had been in continuous use until the site was vacated, but now we were told that this was dangerously contaminated. CARAB discovered that the arsenic contamination on some of the site was less than the maximum permitted level in new bricks!

Laing Homes was selected by Glaxo Wellcome as the developer for the site, and duly produced plans for the proposed new buildings. Laing's representatives promised to replicate the previous buildings on the site as far as possible, but then spoke of creating a "London square" - something rather different from the industrial buildings previously present. This is Berkhamsted, not London.

The plans did not find favour with the neighbours, or with Dacorum Borough Council Planning Officer Hilda Higginbottam. She said that the plans raised the eaves, increased the height of the buildings and altered the roof pitch, which a true replication of the previous buildings would not. The new windows were in different positions from the old, and might not have the traditional sash opening.

The Chairman of Dacorum Borough Council's Architects' Panel was similarly unimpressed. He said that the replication idea supposedly inherent in the new buildings had been stretched to the point where they bore little resemblance to the existing buildings. Minor amendments made since the plans were first published were insufficient to overcome the objections raised by the panel. He complained that the developers had ignored its opinions.

Sadly, Berkhamsted Town Council's Town Planning Committee recommended that Dacorum Borough Council grant permission for the redevelopment by six votes to two. Councillor Lindy Foster-Weinreb and I voted against. Those in favour were all Liberal Democrat members who have shown a surprising degree of empathy with Laing Homes' other developments in the town. Committee Chairman Councillor Christopher Talbot-Ponsonby and Councillor Garrick Stevens spoke enthusiastically in favour of Laing's plans. The contamination survey from Laing Technology Group had “disappeared” from public view for a while, but re-emerged just in time for the Town Planning Committee meeting. However, Councillor Talbot-Ponsonby referred to a newspaper article about it rather than to the document itself. It just so happened that the report indicated acceptable risk of contamination migrating through the ground – a significant factor in the planning decision. Councillor Stanley Sharpe seemed most offended that I dared to question the accuracy of the survey or the motives of those who commissioned it.

The development was discussed at Dacorum Borough Council's Development Control Committee on 11th. May 2000. Simon Heywood, Chairman of CARAB, spoke against the plans, as did Mrs. Kate Bado, a solicitor married to Dr. Bado of Manor Street Surgery.

Mr. Huxton from Laing Homes made a statement in support of the plan. He said that he wanted good design, as this results in properties having a higher value. The plans were displayed at an Open Day in June; Mr. Huxton claimed that 90% of respondents approved. Major changes had been introduced after discussions with Dacorum. Recent discussions with the Architects' Panel had resulted in a more contemporary style with less car parking. He reiterated Berkhamsted Town Council's 6-2 vote in favour, and said that the development as proposed would recreate the existing street scene. He claimed that the Planning Officer's opinion was "Incomprehensible".

Slides prepared by Laing's of the plans and the existing buildings were then shown. Attendees commented on their poor quality and lack of clarity. It is unlikely that they would be meaningful to anyone unfamiliar with the site, such as most of the councillors present.

Councillor Peter Ginger, who represents the ward in which the site is located, claimed that the whole site was contaminated with arsenic, that all the environmental agencies agreed that it was contaminated and that remediation was necessary, the sooner the better. He disagreed with the Architects' Panel, and claimed that the current proposals were the result of discussions in the town.

Councillor Ginger proposed that instead of refusing planning permission as the planning officer had recommended, the decision should be deferred for two meetings. This would give the Chairman and the Architects' Panel time to resolve their differences with Laing's. If there was no resolution by this meeting the application should be refused.

Councillor Richard Jameson said that the contamination problem must be solved. Building on the site could result in deeper contamination, or the cracking of a capped surface. He said that planning permission should be refused, although he liked the layout and design.

Councillor Julian Taunton admitted that the person in the street needed convincing, but he accepted the need to demolish and re-build. He admitted that the planned replication of the buildings did not follow the manner the officers had expected, but he supported Councillor Ginger's motion for deferment.

Councillor Tobias Ellwood said that any development must preserve or enhance the Conservation Area. The current plans were not as good as that which was currently there, and so failed that important test.

Development Control Committee Chairman Councillor Janette Dunbavand said that her view was the same as that of Councillors Taunton and Ginger; she hoped that members would accept deferment.

The committee voted 5 in favour and 5 against. The vote in favour was carried on the casting vote of the chairman.

It is unusual for planning officers to be so vehemently opposed to an application as Hilda Higginbottam was, or so thorough in their assessment. The are often insistent that permission should be granted - if permission is refused, the applicant may appeal, which involves officers in extra work and costs the council more money.

Hilda Higginbottam left Dacorum Borough Council shortly afterwards. I was not surprised. It is no place for skilled professionals with high standards.

The application came before the Development Control Committee again on 22nd. June. Minor admendments had been made, but these were insufficient to overcome the objections voiced on 11th. May. The agenda still named Hilda Higginbottam as the case officer, even though she had left the council's employment some weeks previously. An unknown hand had written the report included with the agenda which recommended that permission for demolition and rebuilding be granted. Councillors followed this advice.

GlaxoWellcome and Laing Homes Ltd were then required to submit a Method Statement for demolition and ground remediation of the site. This stated that the contaminated material would be stripped out before any substantial demolition took place. The reader will recall that Laing Homes obtained planning permission to demolish the buildings on the grounds that they were too badly contaminated with arsenic to be remediated. The method statement revealed that the buildings would still be largely structurally intact after decontaminated material has been removed - in other words that they could be decontaminated without being demolished!

In order to be consistent with the facts stated when planning consent for total demolition was sought, all material on the site should have been regarded as contaminated. Demolition and removal of materials should have taken place in accordance with this.

Instead, demolition took place in accordance with standard practice for demolishing uncontaminated buildings, and created a good deal of dust. A 360 degree excavator with a variety of attachments: bucket, pulveriser, shear and grab, was used. The rubble is was pulverised at ground level using a hydraulic pulveriser, nibbles, grapple and bucket. It was then removed to a landfill site. The only protection from the public from this supposedly arsenic-laden dust was scaffolding, plastic sheeting and wooden hoardings.

Thus another piece of Berkhamsted's history, including Cooper's Chimney, which had been a local landmark for more than a century, was destroyed in order to make the rich richer.

The method statement had specified that work would take place from 8:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday, and 8:00 to 13:00 on Saturday. Neighbours soon started to protest that the demolition contractors were starting early. The route which lorries were supposed to take to and from the site was also stated. A mother complained that she, her child and their push chair had been endangered by a large lorry taking an unauthorised route through narrow streets nearby.

In December 2001, the jib of a crane which was turning into the site swung loose. It smashed through the wall of Number 1 Manor Street and also damaged the premises of KCS Computer Supplies on the corner of Manor Street and the High Street. Number 1 was extensively damaged. Its owner, Mr. Roger Hill, and his lodger had to move to a hotel.

A liaison group has been established where residents' representatives can meet representatives of Laing Homes. As often happens, local people are being consulted on the minutiae of a scheme which they opposed in principle.

As I write, in January 2003, the brickwork and blockwork of new buildings is at an advanced stage. It will be interesting to see whether the finished articles comply with the approved plans.

The new apartments are currently being marketed as "Randulph Villas". Local historian and former Mayor of Berkhamsted John Cook tells us that Randulph (or Ranulph) was superintendent of Berkhamsted Castle in the thirteenth century. He was a bully who terrorised his workers and died "In a most miserable manner" after falling from his horse.

The most appropriate feature of this development could be its name.

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Copyright © 2003 - Ian Johnston
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E-mail ijjohnston@totalise.co.uk