Plans for a UK first in carbon neutral building design in Penrith have been put on hold, after proposals were refused by Eden District Council's planning committee.

Eden District Council's plans for a retrofit of Voreda House in the town will now be "revised" after the authority's planning committee refused planning permission for the proposals at its meeting on Thursday.

After purchasing Voreda House last year, the council hopes to see the building become one of "national significance" as the "UK’s first net-zero-carbon retrofit office".

Plans had been drawn up for a retrofit of the Portland Place location along the "Passivhaus" industry standard, meaning the building would have very high levels of insulation, requiring little energy for heating or cooling.

Eden District Council intends to relocate all its operations to Voreda House, and "co-locate" with partners in the building to "create a new model of integrated public services" in Eden.

However these plans now face a setback, after the council's own planning committee, which is composed of elected council members, refused the council's application for planning permission, as a number of committee members levelled criticism at the building's design, arguing it would have a "detrimental impact" on the character of the local street scene.

Prior to their vote, committee members heard objections from Penrith Town Councillor for Penrith West, Jonathan Davies, of the Putting Cumbria First party.

Mr Davies has been a sustained critic of the council's plans for Voreda House, and brought forward a motion at last month's meeting of Penrith Town Council calling on the authority to halt its plans for the building.

Mr Davies, whose motion was subsequently defeated, stated at February's meeting that the council was "acting irresponsibly" in moving forward with the renovation of the building, given the progress now being made on local government reorganisation.

Eden District Council leader, Liberal Democrat councillor Virginia Taylor, has previously argued that a retrofitted Voreda House "stands to better protect the locally-focused provision of services to residents of Eden and preserve local jobs", should local government reorganisation go ahead.

At Thursday's planning committee meeting, Mr Davies explained that he had received in his capacity as a Penrith Town Councillor representations from a "number of residents" who expressed "concerns about the design and the impact" of the retrofitted Voreda House.

Mr Davies said the proposals do not "match the surrounding buildings in both colour and design", and added that Voreda House sits within the Penrith conservation area.

"The application is proposed to be covered with cladding that's been likened to Lego bricks in the middle of the town by some residents," Mr Davies said.

In addition to his objection to the design, Mr Davies said the proposed building's "cladding is an area of great concern", arguing that the design falls short of the necessary levels of fire safety, that the open plan nature of the redesigned building removes "any potential fire shielding" inside, and that "no additional fire escapes" had been included in the proposed building.

Mr Davies' arguments relating to fire safety were directly challenged by Rod Hughes, director of 2030 Architects, which had designed the plans for Voreda House alongside Greengauge Building Energy Consultants and Eden District Council.

Mr Hughes said the building would be covered externally with "non-combustible coloured panels made from compressed mineral fibre.

"This will comply with all relevant fire regulations for this building type," he said.

Mr Davies also said he was concerned about the potential for "bias" surrounding consideration of the plans for Voreda House.

"Given that this application has been put forward by the authority that the committee represents, we feel there's grounds for this application to be called in by the Secretary of State," Mr Davies said, adding that the officers who authored the report recommending to council members that the plans be approved are "employees of the council".

"As a result of that, the officers' report and opinion could be biased," he said.

"Should this application be approved, we will be requesting the Secretary of State considers calling in this application."

This accusation was dismissed as "entirely unfounded and totally inappropriate" by Eden District Council senior solicitor Rebecca Harrison.

"This application is before members, and they do have jurisdiction to determine this application. notwithstanding that it is an application made by the local authority," she said, adding that planning law allows for this to take place.

"Our officers are professionals.

"Our statutory role as the local planning authority is entirely separate to the decisions made by Eden District Council in this matter.

"It is a separate, statutory process. There's no basis for officers to be subject to the comments made by Mr Davies in terms of bias."

Ms Harrison also advised that the safety concerns Mr Davies raised relating to issues such as cladding would form part of the "separate building regulations regime undertaken by the council".

Speaking in support of the application, 2030 Architects director Rod Hughes described the proposals as a "serious and committee leading edge design responding positively to the climate emergency which affects us all."

Mr Hughes added that the thought behind the building's design was not to "mimic the area" around it, but to offer a "simple" and "contemporary" aesthetic.

Liberal Democrat Penrith North councillor Deb Holden said that the proposals for Voreda House were "really forward-looking," while Green Party Councillor for Penrith North, Ali Ross was also enthusiastic about the plans for Voreda House.

"I think it's an extremely exciting project that will transform a dull, soulless and functionally substandard existing building," she said.

"I think it will result in a living and breathing building that will provide a positive and healthy environment for people who work there, and for members of the public who visit it.

She added that the retrofitted Voreda House would be "massively more energy efficient and therefore more cost-effective to run.

"It'll be carbon neutral, which is exactly what we need to do if we are to meet our zero carbon emissions goal as soon as possible.

"And it provides an exemplar for what can be done to retrofit existing substandard buildings to bring them up to the modern standards for sustainability."

However, a number of other members of the planning committee criticised the proposals, with several commenting critically on the design.

Conservative councillor for Hesket, Elaine Martin, said that she couldn't see "how the building fits into the street scene at all".

"It looks like a Lego block building", she said. "It looks out of place."

Independent councillor for Penrith South, Margaret Clark, said as someone born and bred in Penrith, she had "come to accept this ugly 1960s building for what it is".

However, she said she did not feel the proposals were "going to improve matters".

Independent councillor for Hesket, David Ryland, was also critical of the proposed design.

"It is not sympathetic to the local character, and it is not attractive," he said.

Mr Ryland also expressed concerns over the "green wall" proposed as part of the design, facing Coronation Gardens.

He said the proposed wall would be "just traditional planting of climbers. An opportunity arose here to go further."

"I envisaged a vertical planted modern contemporary wall," he said, and added that using common tree ivy would present problems with greenfly and mould.

Penrith East Conservative councillor John Lynch also expressed concerns over following the passivhaus design standard, suggesting that it would be preferable to wait until the use of the design standard in a commercial building had been "proven"

"It might be a disaster," he said.

Greystoke Conservative councillor Debra Wicks said that she did not wish to see Voreda House reconfigured into an "equally distracting building".

"The fact is the building is an expense this council doesn't need to undertake at the moment, and is not fit for purpose," she said.

She argued that the design of the building would have a "detrimental impact" on the "character of the street scene".

Ms Wicks also noted her concerns over the lack of clarity on the impact of noise from the air source heat pump, and the lack of detail on the external lighting arrangements, which she suggested could have safety implications.

When put to a final vote, six committee members voted to refuse the planning application, while five voted against refusal.

Eden District Council has said it will now "look again" at the application, with a view to revising the proposals.

A spokesperson for the council said: “In light of the comments and recommendations made by the members of the planning committee, we will now look again at the application to see what amendments need to be made, and we will present a revised application for consideration at the earliest opportunity.

“The plans for Voreda House have been described as an exemplar scheme of national significance.

"The proposal is to deliver the UK’s first large scale Passivhaus Standard office building retrofit and provide a modern high quality sustainable and safe environment for Eden District Council’s staff, partners and customers.”