CONTROVERSIAL plans to convert Dorking’s former magistrates’ court into retirement apartments have been unanimously rejected by councillors after last-minute proposals were submitted to convert the building into a mortuary.
The development had already caused tension between Mole Valley District Council (MVDC) and developer Renaissance Retirement, who had planned to buy the former law court from Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service, but accused the council of trying to sabotage the development.
The accusation came after planning officers recommended the proposal to convert the building into 33 retirement homes be rejected, saying it amounted to overdevelopment of the London Road site.
At a meeting of MVDC’s development control committee last Wednesday, councillors were forced to suspend talks for 15 minutes after it was suggested by council leader Chris Townsend that members had not had enough time to read new information, including Surrey County Council’s (SCC) bid to acquire the building for conversion to a public mortuary, prior to the meeting last week.
When talks resumed, councillors were quick to question Renaissance Retirement’s plans, saying the proposal amounted to overdevelopment, and adding that SCC’s interest was another major reason for refusal as it would keep the building in civic use.
Dorking member Stephen Cooksey, who has spoken out against the plans in the past, said Dorking’s Town Area Action Plan policy DT10 states that the magistrates’ court should be prioritised for civic or community use.
The new interest from SCC adds another twist to the future use of the law courts saga. The authority had previously expressed interest in buying the building to use as a coroner’s court, which was later withdrawn, before MVDC had its own bid rejected by the builder’s owners.
A report written by Vail Williams LLP on behalf of Surrey said: “Given SCC’s property team are seeking to begin acquisition discussions with the landowner as to providing a use described in DT10, it is justified that the protection of the site for civic/community uses should be maintained and upheld.”
There is currently no public mortuary in Dorking, with services carried out at four separate hospitals: Frimley Park, Royal Surrey, East Surrey and St Peter’s.
The proposals, which have been supported by the senior coroner for Surrey, Richard Travers, would provide a building to store up to 250 bodies and include post-mortem examination facilities.
According to the SCC report: “Mr Travers has confirmed that in his view the former Dorking Magistrates’ Court would be a suitable site for such a facility, being centrally located within the county and with good access.”
In a statement given to the Advertiser after the decision, Renaissance Retirement managing director Robert Taylor said: “We are very disappointed by the decision and we now will look at the options available to us.”
Renaissance Retirement is expected to make a decision on whether or not to appeal the decision in the coming weeks.