A new town centre complex for the frail elderly would cause irreparable harm to a nearby listed building, a public inquiry heard today.

The warning was issued by Worthing Borough Council at an appeal hearing considering plans for 65 sheltered flats on the site of an art college in Union Place, Worthing.

The plot has been sold by Northbrook College to developers McCarthy and Stone, which wants to build a two, three and four storey complex next to grade II listed Elm Lawn House, built in the 1830s.

Money from the sale will be used to pay for a new college at Northbrook's ageing campus in Broadwater Road, Worthing.

But James Strachan, for the council, said the new development would be "wrapped around" Elm Lawn House on three sides.

He said the scheme sacrificed good design, was inherently inappropriate and would dominate the listed building.

But Graham Bell, design director for McCarthy and Stone, said the complex would enhance that part of Worthing.

He said: "It is proposed to construct the appeal scheme in a modern contemporary design which will not attempt to replicate Elm Lawn House in a pastiche manner or compete with it, but preserve its setting by placing it as the central element within the scheme."

When Elm Lawn House was listed in 1976 it was described as "very badly mutilated".

The building was being used as offices by the college and wasn't in a conservation area.

McCarthy and Stone appealed after the council failed to consider its application in the allotted time.

Borough planners later ruled that the scheme should be refused because it was too big and bulky, and would detract from the setting of Elm Lawn House, and Union Place's character.

They were backed by conservation groups including the Worthing Society and the Georgian Society.

When the scheme was first tabled, council leader Keith Mercer said Worthing needed a sheltered housing scheme in Union Place "like a hole in the head".

He feared it could impact on major plans to redevelop the town centre.

But Rupert Warren, counsel for McCarthy and Stone, advised inspector John Papworth, sitting at the Richmond Room, Stoke Abbott Road, that the council's masterplan was not a reason for refusal.

Mr Papworth was visiting Elm Lawn House during the inquiry, which is scheduled to last three days.

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