Backlash over plans for County Hall site

The masterplan for the County Hall site.
The masterplan for the County Hall site.
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Major plans for the current County Hall, former fire station and Merley Croft sites in Morpeth have come in for strong criticism from Morpeth councillors.

Northumberland County Council announced last week that an outline bid for up to 200 family homes and a detailed application for a commercial zone including a supermarket, smaller retail units, a café/restaurant and a pub are going to be submitted.

The authority itself will submit a detailed bid for a new first school to replace the current school at Goosehill, following the announcement last month. This would be located to the front of the County Hall site.

Residents will be able to see the plans for the area in Loansdean at a drop-in session, which will take place today in the County Hall restaurant from 3pm to 7pm.

Coun Andrew Tebbutt, whose Morpeth Kirkhill ward includes these sites, believes there are various planning grounds on which to oppose the housing and commercial elements.

He said it would exacerbate traffic congestion at the Telford Bridge and remove any opportunity to build the long-awaited Stobhill/Loansdean road link as a section of the planned residential area blocks the proposed route.

He added: “I’m not the least bit surprised by what is being proposed for these sites, but the real frustration is that a lot of people have put in an enormous amount of effort over the last few years for the good of the town and the administration is riding roughshod over this work.

“They really don’t care about the people of Morpeth and it makes me feel both angry and sad.

“All previous planning policies have resisted edge of town supermarkets and other retail outlets because of the negative impact on the town centre.

“The County Hall site, if vacated, is a mixture of employment land and designated open space, so housing would constitute a change of use.

“The plans are totally contrary to the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan (MNP) and the county council’s emerging Core Strategy.

“Housing policy requires most houses to be built to the north of Morpeth and there are already more houses in the pipeline on designated sites than required under both the MNP and the Core Strategy.

“The potential road link with Stobhill has been preserved for more than 20 years and it was always the question of having the money to do it.

“Shutting off that opportunity shows that the administration doesn’t care about the need to relieve traffic in Morpeth in the years ahead.

“It’s absolutely vital that residents attend the drop-in session and have their say.

“If they can’t attend, they can fill in the relevant section on the leaflet that has been sent out, or they can write directly to the leader of the council (Grant Davey).”

Morpeth North county councillor David Bawn said: “These proposals are the final nail in the coffin of the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan.

“The blatant disregard for the plan by the administration is breathtaking.

“These 200 additional houses are completely unsustainable – our town is already creaking at the seams with the developments already approved.

“Furthermore, the creation of an unwanted out-of-town retail offering will add more pressure to our town centre and the viability of local businesses.

“People would not be amiss to ask whether this plan is deliberate economic vandalism of Morpeth by this administration, frankly it is unforgiveable.”

Concerns have also been raised by the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade.

The organisation is in the process of canvassing businesses throughout the town on the proposal and it will be discussed at a special meeting.

Chamber spokesman John Beynon said: “Over the years, we have successfully fought off planning applications for edge and out of town supermarkets and retail sheds.

“We have only seen draft plans on this proposal, but our principles are the same.

“The worrying aspect of this scheme is that although countless surveys, including reports from the likes of Mary Portas, state that out-of-town and edge-of-town retail developments do damage town centres, it is our own county council that is proposing this development in this very difficult economical climate when the chamber, town council and Morpeth Town Team are working extremely hard to preserve and promote our historic market town.”

Leaflets publicising the drop-in session have been delivered to a number of homes in Morpeth.

However, Southgate Wood resident Ken Kirkbride said he and a few other people living in the estate have not received the publication.

A county council spokesman said Southgate Wood was down as being part of the distribution area for the leaflets.

He added: “The leaflet drop was not organised or carried out by the county council, but by consultants NLP.”

Meanwhile, demolition works have started at the for-mer fire station site this week.

The county council spokesman said: “The old fire station site and associated buildings are now empty and to ensure public safety and prevent vandalism, the buildings will start to be demolished next week ahead of potential re-development of the whole site.”