Planning Committee refuses to back retrospective plans for student house

Barry Street, Derry.
Barry Street, Derry.

Councillors have refused to back a retrospective application to have a house in Derry already occupied by foreign students turned into an official Home of Multiple Occupation (HMO).

Derry City & Strabane District Council’s Planning Committee disagreed with the planner’s recommendation to approve retrospective permission for the house at 20 Barry Street in Pennyburn, expressing concerns that the building was too small to accommodate four bedrooms.

Applicant Dermot McSorley had applied for the retention of a conversion of the two storey, mid-terrace single occupancy dwelling to a house of multiple occupancy with four bedrooms and communal areas.

A Planning Officer told the committee that despite HMOs normally requiring a living floorspace of 150 sq m, this property, which has a floorspace of 92 sq m, fell within the city’s ‘Central Area’ zone outlined in the Derry Area Plan and was located beside a key transport route, which meant that such a stipulation could be exempted. She added that the property also had a 22 sq m. garden, and that there was also one other HMO on the opposite side of the street.

A total of 17 letters of objection were received, 15 of which were reproduced letters signed by different people with addresses at Governor Road. The objectors raised various concerns including lack of parking for residents; noise impact; invasion of privacy and devaluation of property.

The Planning Officer said that the owner was already letting the property to European students.

An agent for Mr, McSorley, meanwhile, read a letter from him, which stated that he had purchased the property in 2016 and that its refurbishment had helped improve the appearance of the street.

He said that the house has been rented out to German, Spanish, Portuguese and French students, whom he selected because of his own experience working in further education.

“They are well behaved and mannerly,” he said.

He also said he had found no issues with parking and has never had any complaints involving the students.
“These students,” he said, “enhance the economic vitality of the area” and promoted the city as a great place to come back to, to see and to work in.

He added that these students “do not have a drinking culture” and were “more interested in learning and working.”

A letter was also submitted from Yvonne Boyle, Student Services Manager, at Foyle International, confirming they had placed students in the property and anticipating they would do so again.

Sinn Fein Councillor Patricia Logue, however, said that her main concern was the footprint of the dwelling.

“The recommended spacial size for turning a property into a HMO is 150 sq. m., and what we have here is 92 sq. m. - that is a full 58 sq. m. short, over a third of the recommended space. For me the gap is just too big.”

Colr. Logue said taking away one of the bedrooms and creating more open space could be a consideration.

SDLP Colr. Angela Dobbins echoed those concerns and said she “wouldn’t blink an eye” if the application had been for a three-bedroom HMO.

Her party colleague John Boyle said there was a “creeping HMO situation” locally.
“How far are we going to allow this HMO proliferation in this city and how many exceptions are we going to make?” he asked, adding: “We have a responsibility to provide adequate living space for people, irrespective of whether they are students from here or Spain or Portugal or anywhere else. It’s the same responsibility; the same standard.”

Colr. Logue suggested the council look at developing its own policy plan for HMOs.

Head of Planning, Maura Fox, said at present there was no HMO Policy Officers to use as a guide.

This is an issue we are definitely looking at, but in the absence of that, we have to deal with the policies we have got currently,” she said.

The application will now be re-examined and brought back before the committee next month when a final decision is expected.