A library depot in Cambridge will become the city’s new register office despite strong objections from members of the county council’s planning committee.
The Roger Ascham building, in Ascham Road in Cambridge, is currently a library distribution service centre.
Cambridgeshire County Council’s planning committee voted by a majority on Thursday (January 28) to grant planning permission for a change of use so it can take over as a register office and ceremony room from Castle Lodge.
The current register office will not be available for much longer as it is part of the current county council headquarters site at Shire Hall, which the council is selling the leasehold to move to Alconbury.
Councillors criticised the choice of the Roger Ascham building as an unsuitable building, in an unsuitable location for a register office, which will be used to register births, deaths and host marriage, citizenship and other civil ceremonies.
“I got married at Shire Hall nearly 50 years ago. There is no way I would want to be married in that site,” councillor Barbara Ashwood said of the library depot.
‘It’s such a shame’
The committee heard that the Roger Ascham building will be extended and that a “landscaped” pergola area for wedding and ceremony photos will be located in a part of the car park.
Councillor Sebastian Kindersley said: “It is such a shame that we are not looking at a much more significant place where people will be undertaking such a significant event in their lives.
“It’s very sad I think – if I’m a bride and a groom and I turn up and I see that place for the first time, no matter what my heart is going to sink and I’m going to go ‘oh really’”.
He also criticised what he described as a lack of parking on site, the lack of access via public transport and the management plans proposed to mitigate those limitations, arguing it will have a negative impact on users of the service and the surrounding residential area.
“This is not simply making sausages,” he said of the allocated time slots, which have been extended from 30 to 45 minutes to give people more time to vacate the premises before the next party arrives.
“There is going to be traffic up and down that road constantly. It’s going to be people going to the venue, and it’s going to be people trying to find somewhere to park. It’s going to be mayhem.
“And we need to recognise that because a bride arriving late is traditional, but arriving so late that she has missed her slot because she could not find anywhere to park is going to cause considerable heartache to them, and it’s going to be a considerable problem for us as a county council providing a registration service.”
He added: “I have very considerable concerns about the appropriateness of this building for such important ceremonies. This is just a bog-standard office in a residential part of Cambridge”.
Councillor Jocelynne Scutt said: “I’m not happy and I very much doubt the people getting married or joined in a civil ceremony would be happy to come out the back and to be squashed into that pergola area”.
She said the plans are “unsatisfactory”, and added, “it’s further evidence that no proper research has been done into the closing down of Shire Hall – nothing”.
‘A much better job could be done’
A number of councillors who voted to approve the application said they did so only because they could find no material planning consideration that would justify voting against it.
“I’m not happy, I’m not convinced and I think a much better job could be done,” councillor Bill Hunt said, but he nevertheless voted for the change of use.
Councillor Lynda Harford said: “My heart [says] this is just not the right place, this is just not a good decision.
“But at the end of the day, with my planning head-on, I look at it and say there are no statutory consultee objections, and our duty is simply to look at what we are being asked to do which is look at a change of use”.
One councillor, Ian Gardner, did express support. He said he had “confidence” that the council officers “have decided this site suits their needs adequately”.
“The happy couple does not have to have their photographs taken at this particular site if they do not wish so,” he said.
A number of residents objected to the application, citing concerns over the suitability of locating a register office on a residential street, with one describing it as “overdevelopment” and another person saying the building “does not really have the civic standing and sense of place required for important events like recording births, deaths and conducting wedding ceremonies”.
The planning consultant for the project, Richard Smith, told the committee: “We believe the site is suitable for the proposed use in planning terms”.
And he added: “The site can accommodate the parking requirements for the proposed use”.
Council officers told the committee that 43 sites were considered prior to the Roger Ascham building being chosen.
The council’s registration service manager, Louise Clover, said: “Whilst it doesn’t tick every box in the way that we would perhaps like it to, it is the best option to serve the people of Cambridge”.
Cambridgeshire County Council, which was the applicant, was granted planning permission for the change of use by its planning committee, with five councillors voting in favour, with Cllr Scutt voting against, and Cllr Ashwood and Cllr Kindersley abstaining.