East Devon’s former HQ at Knowle in Sidmouth can’t be knocked down to make way for a care and retirement development.

The old offices, which were also once a hotel, were severely damaged by fire in a suspected case of arson last March.

Retirement homes specialist McCarthy and Stone wanted to build a 70-bed care home, 53 assisted living apartments for over-70s and 33 apartments for over-60s on the site, as well as four semi-detached homes and a terrace of three townhouses which would not have been age-restricted.

A former caretaker’s building would also have been kept, and another purpose-built structure erected, for bat habitats.

But now planning permission has been turned down, with one councillor suggesting the plans reminded him of a prison.

The decision followed strong opposition by members of the public at an East Devon District Council (EDDC) meeting this week to consider the plans.

Objector Michael Temple said: “[The] design is undistinguished, off-the-peg, alien, like an urban institution with large side walls without windows… all out of keeping with the town and immediate area and failing to reflect the town’s vernacular.

“This prime historic parkland site needs something much, much better than this poorly designed and very damaging overdevelopment.”

Sidmouth Herald: The old offices were severely damaged by fire in a suspected case of arson last March. The old offices were severely damaged by fire in a suspected case of arson last March. (Image: Middlemoor Fire Station)

Sidmouth Town Council supported the non-age-restricted houses, but not the care and retirement parts of the proposed development.  

Its chair Cllr Chris Lockyear said: “We were opposed to the very large care home and retirement apartments. They are simply too big for that site. They are out of keeping with the area and architecturally very different.  

“They will dominate the surrounding parkland and the surrounding houses. They will be visible from Peak Hill and from Salcombe Hill and therefore will change the appearance of Sidmouth both locally and from afar.” 

Read more: Knowle fire is being treated as arson

Read more: Knowle fire: statement from developers

But a spokesman for the developer addressed the potential benefits of the redevelopment. 

He said: “The council can’t demonstrate a five-year supply of housing and this obviously helps and contributes towards that overall provision.  

“In addition, this is a job creation. There are jobs being provided in the care home and the extra care as well as retirement element. 

“That type of accommodation, the mix of accommodation, you’ve got a variety there in terms of care, extra care, open-market housing, there is a balanced community there. 

“Commonly, residents will have family, friends, or will be living within the local community.

“And this does provide them that opportunity to remain part of that. It enables the downsizing of properties.  

“So people, worker residents, will be moving in there. Yes, there may be some from outside, but predominantly it will be from within the local area.” 

EDDC planning officers had recommended councillors approve the plans, warning it could be difficult to defend an appeal.

A previous application for assisted living properties at the Knowle was allowed at appeal. 

Councillors nevertheless voted to refuse the application on the grounds the design and shape of the two most southerly blocks would not have been acceptable and would have failed to recognise local distinctiveness.

They said the scheme would lead to ‘overlooking’, been too overbearing and would have had an adverse impact on the local landscape. 

Cllr Ian Barlow (Independent, Sidmouth Town), describing the proposed development as “monolithic”, said: “When I first saw [the design] I thought it perhaps had been the same architect that designed the Bibby Stockholm because it looks about as interesting as that.  

“Do we not like our old people? Do we want them to live in what can be best described as a prison block?” 

Sophie Richards, district councillor for Sidmouth Town, said:  "We all agree the site needs to be developed. I want development at the Knowle but not in its current form.

"I’ve listened to residents' concerns.

"It needs to be the right development, the right number of dwellings, the right height. I know the developer has taken steps to address local concerns about drainage, but I’d prefer there not to even have been an issue. This is a prestigious development site and I want the right level of investment right at the start.

"More broadly, I believe this is a missed opportunity to provide affordable housing for young families in the sid valley. We don’t have many spaces in the Sid Valley and we want, and need, a more sustainable community. I want people who were born in Sidmouth to be able to stay in Sidmouth. And I worry this development requires workers, who we have nowhere to house.

"I've met with the developer and asked for a residents forum. I have now heard they are committed to establishing this, but it should have happened before now to involve the community. It’s imperative that any development can command their confidence."

The district councillor for Sidmouth Rural, Cllr John Loudoun, also presented his views during the meeting.

He said: "I was pleased to have spoken at today's Planning Committee in opposition to the latest planning application submitted by McCarthy Stone for the long vacated former council offices at the Knowle. I believe that these proposals for this site would not be beneficial to Sidmouth.

"My comments were similar to those put forward against the planning application by the Chair of the Town Council, Dr Joe Stych from the Beacon Medical Centre and several other local residents. I commend Ian Barlow, Sidmouth Town Ward Member in his capacity as a member of the planning committee for doggedly and successfully arguing for the planning committee to refuse permission for this misguided and overbearing application. I also commend the planning committee for doing the right thing for this town by refusing planning permission."