Council’s concern over housing estate report

SERIOUS town council concerns about a report into the Loansdean housing appeal were not even put before a county planning committee.

Last week, the Herald revealed residents’ anger about a county council officer’s report into the outcome of the Bellway appeal to build 200 homes, in which Planning Inspector Malcolm Rivett’s reasons for rejecting the bid were questioned.

Morpeth Town Council was also concerned and took the matter as an urgent item at its planning meeting last Wednesday.

Members decided to prepare a short paper for the county’s North Area Planning Committee the following evening, urging councillors to defer acceptance of the report.

But despite the paper being handed over to Committee Chairman John Taylor before the meeting, it was not circulated to members and the report was nodded through.

Town councillor David Parker said: “The committee did receive the report and there was virtually no discussion. The town council put the letter to the committee, but the letter was not circulated. The Chairman decided not to circulate it. I did request him to do so. No reason was given for not doing that.”

Although county councillors rejected Bellway’s Loansdean plans in February against officers’ advice, they later made a decision in secret, following a briefing, not to defend the appeal.

Mr Rivett turned down the appeal in August saying the scheme would breach the settlement boundary, significantly harm the countryside and there was adequate housing supply already, while the ‘affordable’ housing would still be costly.

Bellway is challenging the decision in the High Court, citing mathematical errors in the conclusions.

A report was prepared by the county’s North Area Development Manager Peter Rutherford to be ‘noted’ by the planning committee last week, which suggested there may have been confusion, misunderstanding and inaccuracies in the inspector’s findings.

But at Morpeth Town Council’s Planning and Transport Committee meeting Coun Parker said: “I find some of these comments disquieting.

“It disturbs me that council officers are acting in this way, bearing in mind that they seem to have had some agenda going back to last February.”

He added: “What I think is particularly questionable is that one of the areas they are commenting on is the area that Bellway is challenging before the High Court, namely housing numbers. That could be seen as pre-judging the court’s decision.”

Fellow councillor Nic Best said: “It is a matter for the judicial review to interpret the inspector’s report, not the county council, not the planning committee and not the officers.”

And Coun Les Cassie said: “I don’t think it is the business of county council officers to undermine an inspector’s report.”

Town councillors said the county council should examine the inspector’s findings as they will have implications for future decisions, but not until further talks have taken place.

A county council spokeswoman said: “The report to the North Area Planning Committee was an information report only to advise members of the outcome of the appeal and inquiry. Work is ongoing on the potential implications of the decision for housing supply and delivery in Morpeth and the wider area. Circulating information that is received after an agenda has been published is at the discretion of the committee Chairman.”