The future of a prominent Douglas site is now unknown after plans fell through.

On Monday the planning committee voted to refuse proposals to redevelop part of Douglas’s North Quay with a restaurant, flats and cafe.

The proposal would have meant the demolition of an historic warehouse.

Plans for the £8m development known as Merchant’s Place were submitted by Kelproperties Ltd in February and sparked controversy.

Kelproperties says that it now plans to sell the site as soon as possible, ‘to allow someone else to try’.

The plans would have involved the demolition of six buildings along the quayside, two of which were registered.

One of these was the former Newson’s shop building, an 18th century warehouse.

Last year, it had applied for a demolition order for the Newson’s building, citing an immediate risk of collapse.

However, there was stark disagreement between the company’s findings and those of the government’s structural engineer who advised the planning committee.

Kelproperties Ltd said that it had surveys carried out by two structural engineers, which found that ‘the buildings are in such a poor structural condition that they can be considered dangerous’, and that ‘safe retention is not possible’.

However, the government’s structural engineer said that the warehouse was ‘a 100% robust building’ and ‘capable of being repurposed’.

The engineer also stated that the prominent metal supports which were erected to the side of the building (during the emergency demolition order) were not serving any structural purpose, and that the building would not be at risk of collapse without them.

The development (22/00149/GB) had the support of Douglas Council.

Development enforcement officer Steve Salter, who spoke in favour of the plans on its behalf, said that the authority ‘understands and accepts that generally there is a presumption against the demolition of registered buildings’.

However, he went on to say that ‘in this instance the council believes that approval should be given, as the registered building has not enhanced the North Quay conservation area for several years’.

Mr Salter pointed out that the buildings were actually on the council’s schedule of dilapidated properties, which are considered as being ‘a detriment to the neighbourhood’.

‘The council considers that the potential benefits of the application, of bringing this part of North Quay back into productive use, outweigh the benefits of retaining the registered building,’ he said.

In July, Kelproperties Ltd organised a public petition which it said gathered just over 500 signatures in support of the plans.

However, the planning committee acknowledged that it would not be appropriate to factor the petition in their considerations.

The architect working for Kelproperties noted that in his 30 years experience of submitting planning applications, while it was common for the public to oppose applications, it was rare to see people come out in support of one.

A representative from Kelproperties gave the following statement to the Examiner:

‘This decision by the planning committee is a direct repudiation of the government’s policy to create a better and more prosperous Isle of Man while improving the environment and our town centres.

‘We have spent several years trying to invest £8 million to fix this crumbling eyesore, but have been unable to overcome the objections of the planners.

‘This was an environmentally responsible project to rehabilitate a dilapidated brownfield site, create more homes and create more jobs, while investing in the our high street to create entertainment for our community.

‘People who want a vibrant Douglas town centre have lost. People who want to create good jobs have lost. People who want to enhance our environment have lost. People who want to create housing for Manx families have lost.

‘The planners’ recommendation to refuse totally contradicted last week’s government policy conference. Consequently, we will be putting the property up for sale immediately to allow someone else to try. Interested buyers can contact Cowley Groves for further information.

‘Finally, we feel the planning meeting did not have access to well-balanced information.

‘The engineer supporting objections was allowed to continually speak, whereas our architect was only given three minutes, and our engineer not allowed to speak at all to challenge what they were saying.

‘That needs to change to give a more fair planning hearing.’

Andrew Johnson from Manx National Heritage was also present at the meeting to outline what makes the warehouse historically unique.

He said that the buildings ‘make an extremely characterful contribution to the conservation area’, adding: ‘The warehouse that has attracted so much attention is one of an increasingly rare type of structure anywhere in the island.

‘And this one in particular because it is parallel with the frontage, rather than gable-end on.’

He said that the internal layout was also unique in the way that it showed the building’s historical purpose.

As for the planned replacement buildings, Mr Johnson said MNH was disappointed with the quality of their design, which was ‘bland and very regular’.

He concluded that he would like to see ‘a more caring approach to the maintenance [of the registered buildings], and a more imaginative approach to their retention’.

The Antiquarian Society also spoke on this point, describing the proposal as ‘Toytown architecture’.

Two of the committee members voted against the planning officer’s recommendation to refuse the plans, and three voted in favour.

Member Matthew Warren, who voted against the plans, said that he was ‘in two minds’ about his vote, having liked the idea of having the harbour as a ‘vibrant, go-to destination’.

‘At the same time, some buildings do need to be kept,’ he said.

Helen Hughes, who voted in favour of the application, told the meeting: ‘I think that the proposal is very sympathetic, and [the planned buildings] are pretty much the same mass and scale’.

Michael Cubbon, who voted against the application, said: ‘I think we’ve lost too many historic buildings.’

He said that the registered building was ‘significant’.

Mr Cubbon pointed to applications where registered buildings had been improved and repurposed, adding that he was ‘disappointed’ in Douglas Council.

Adrian Kermode, who voted in favour of the application, said: ‘In the past we have ripped the heart out of places, just pulled things down to the detriment of Douglas.

‘Here though, looking at the benefits of the development making the harbour buzzing and a vibrant place to be, I just want to see something done with it.’

Marlene Maska MLC spoke in a private capacity at the meeting, noting that she was the island’s first building conservation officer.

She commended the planning officer’s report and refusal recommendation. Mrs Maska said that the maintenance recommendations of a 2018 report on the building had not been carried out, which she described as ‘good housekeeping’ measures (like clearing drains, roofing work and repointing masonry), and suggested this was part of the reason why the building was considered dilapidated.

Newson’s, which specialised in outdoor clothing, left the site in 2016 to move to Strand Street. Its premises there are closing as it moves to concentrate on work clothes at another site.