Call-in for proposals at important town sites

More than 1,000 people marched from Morpeth town centre to County Hall in February to protest against the plans.  Picture by Jane Coltman.
More than 1,000 people marched from Morpeth town centre to County Hall in February to protest against the plans. Picture by Jane Coltman.

Opponents of controversial plans in an area of Morpeth have spoken of their delight after they were called-in by the Government.

This means that Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), will make the final decision on the applications.

Following a process where the Labour-run Northumberland County Council invited bids, a proposal was put forward to build up to 200 new homes at the local authority’s current County Hall headquarters site in Loansdean.

And plans were also lodged for a new supermarket, retail units, drive-thru restaurant and a pub on the former fire station and Merley Croft sites.

The bid by the county council to relocate Morpeth First School to the front of County Hall were also approved. Although less controversial, objectors said there were more suitable sites available, including the land earmarked for the retail park.

They were approved by a majority vote at a meeting of the local authority’s strategic planning committee earlier this month, but they were then referred to the National Planning Casework Unit.

And a DCLG spokesman has now confirmed that Mr Javid has called-in the applications. He will make a decision following a public inquiry that will be heard by a planning inspector.

David Holden of the South Morpeth Coalition (SMC) group, which is opposing the bids, said: “The opinions of more than 1,700 residents have finally been listened to with this decision by Mr Javid.

“The resolutions passed at the planning committee were disgraceful and made a mockery of the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan, which was endorsed by nearly 4,000 residents last year with a 93 per cent majority.

“Retail and housing are not suitable uses for this site, which is clear in the plan.

“The principle of a new school is supported but the suggested location opposite a fast food drive-thru is appalling.”

Across the three applications, there were 1,731 letters of objection and 15 letters of support.

Morpeth Chamber of Trade chairman Jacky Beesley said: “I am so pleased that the Secretary of State has recognised the applications should be determined independently.

“The retail proposal was unpopular from the outset with businesses and residents, and I am extremely disappointed that it was publicly backed by the county council’s leader, Grant Davey.

There are numerous opportunities to provide extra retail in the town centre, which would support existing businesses.

Requests for the plans to be called in were submitted by the SMC and the Chamber of Trade. Morpeth Town Council also wrote to the Secretary of State as did local politicians and two of Northumberland’s MPs, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Guy Opperman.

Wansbeck Liberal Democrats as a group – and Joan and Andrew Tebbutt individually – were among this number and Coun Joan Tebbutt who chaired the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group, is having her complaint about probity in planning considered by the Ombudsman.

She said: “At last there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“The neighbourhood plan policies, which came about as a result of years of hard work put in by the town council and the community, will be heard and considered at public inquiry with care and impartiality; something sadly lacking in the county council.

“I will be doing my utmost to ensure that our neighbourhood plan is upheld. My thanks go to all the individuals and businesses who campaigned with us.”

Morpeth North county councillor David Bawn, a Conservative Party member, said: “This is a real blow to the scorched earth strategy of the current administration, seeking to rush through their scheme before the election.

“All bets are now off and I am confident that when the planning inspector looks into these schemes, he will conclude they are entirely unsuitable.”

Mrs Trevelyan said: “I am delighted the Secretary of State has called in these three planning applications, which caused a lot of concern locally, including among my constituents who work in the area.

“The Government is ensuring local people can shape the future of their communities by forming neighbourhood plans, as Morpeth has done.

“The Labour-led county council’s plans to ignore and override that plan shows their contempt for local people and the democratic voice.”

In response, Coun Davey said: “This is a blatant political intervention by a failing Government to stop our progress in Northumberland and it will place investments across the county at risk.

“We said we wanted to return council jobs and over 30 services to market towns like Alnwick, Berwick, Hexham and Morpeth, yet Northumberland Tories have teamed up with their Government to try and put a halt to that.

“Returning jobs and services to the market towns is coupled with further investment like new leisure centres, schools and in arts and culture like the county’s playhouses and theatres, and this is all linked to our balanced budget recently passed, which local Tories voted against.

“Local Tories have sat idly by while their Government has slashed grants by over £190million, halted affordable housing funding and slashed £16million from schools funding, and yet they now want to stop the council saving money and returning services closer to communities.”