Final protest before planning meeting for major Morpeth applications

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Decisions about three major planning applications in Morpeth are set to be made this afternoon.

Hundreds of people have submitted objections and following the March on Friday, February 24, there was a protest shortly before the meeting of Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee got under way at 2pm.

Protest outside County Hall in Morpeth before the planning meeting.
 Picture by Jane Coltman

Protest outside County Hall in Morpeth before the planning meeting. Picture by Jane Coltman

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

An application was lodged for a new supermarket, retail units, drive-thru restaurant and a pub on the former fire station and Merley Croft sites and there was also a bid to relocate Morpeth First School to the front of County Hall – all three are being recommended for approval by planning officers.

The South Morpeth Coalition is among those opposing the applications. It says housing and retail were not mentioned as options for the County Hall and nearby sites in the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan that came into effect last year.

Major concerns among those who have objected also include the impact of the retail park on businesses in the main town centre and the prospect of a McDonalds drive-thru being located so close to a first school.

Charles Robinson was among the protesters outside County Hall in Morpeth before the planning meeting.  Picture by Jane Coltman

Charles Robinson was among the protesters outside County Hall in Morpeth before the planning meeting. Picture by Jane Coltman

They also say that there have been sufficient permissions for housing to be built in the Morpeth area to meet the demand for the town within the plan period, therefore there is no justification for further housing development in the area.

Charles Robinson, a member of the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade, said: “We have seen throughout the country that out-of-town retail developments have a devastating effect on independent shops in market towns.

“Having spent years in formulating a community-led plan, the county council is driving a coach and horses through it, which is extremely sad.

“The response from the people of Morpeth has been phenomenal – residents from across the town have come together to oppose these developments.”

Police attending the protest outside County Hall in Morpeth before the planning meeting.
 Picture by Jane Coltman

Police attending the protest outside County Hall in Morpeth before the planning meeting. Picture by Jane Coltman

There was a strong police presence at the protest, as many as nine officers were present. This was criticised by Loansdean resident Susan Cook.

She said: “The amount of police in ratio to the group of quiet protesters was incredible and unnecessary.”

Objections for the plans to relocate Morpeth First School include that the proposed site is considered to be inadequate for the expected number of pupils, or large enough to allow for future expansion, and there are more suitable locations.

The latest figures for correspondence are as follows: Commercial – 922 against, eight in favour; Housing – 722 against, one in favour; School – 74 against, six in favour.

Opponents are hoping that the Government will ultimately determine the applications.

Call-in requests have been made by Morpeth Town Council, the Morpeth Chamber of Trade, South Morpeth Coalition (SMC), local Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups, Anne Marie Trevelyan MP, Guy Opperman MP and Coun Joan Tebbutt as chairman of the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group.

The officers’ reports give the rationale for recommending approval. They include the following:

Commercial development

‘The supporting information for the application states that the development estimates the delivery of an average of 85 jobs on-site throughout the duration of the anticipated 36-week build programme, a further 130 jobs in the supply chain and related services during the construction period and the creation of an estimated 235 full-time jobs at the site once operational.

‘In respect of the Morpeth Riverside site, the council has taken this off the market and now intends to redevelop the site to accommodate a new leisure centre and library.

‘As such, the Morpeth Riverside site is no longer available to accommodate the proposal and can be discounted from the sequential assessment on this basis.

‘The proposed relocation of the leisure centre will likely result in the existing New Market site becoming available for re-development at a future point in time. However, it is not available at present as it is still in use, nor is it clear when the site may potentially become available.

‘In any event the New Market site would be unsuitable for the type and scale of development being proposed in this case due to the severe restrictions on the highway network in that part of the town centre, which would make any form of retail development difficult to access by servicing and delivery vehicles.

‘Whilst the expenditure claimed by the proposal is not insubstantial, WYG (which was commissioned by the council to carry out an appraisal in relation to the application) believe Morpeth town centre to be a generally strong town centre.

‘The proportion of commercial stock which has been vacant in recent years has been consistently below the regional and national average. They note the apparent popularity (both for shoppers and retailers) of Sanderson Arcade and that the current marketing for the Arcade describes it as a ‘success story’.

‘Taking such factors into consideration, WYG believe that the comparison goods impact arising at Morpeth town centre would be of less than ‘significant adverse’ magnitude.

‘Consequently, this would not merit the refusal of the application in accordance with paragraph 27 of the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework).

‘In considering impact, WYG state that it is of relevance to consider the matter of linked trips.

‘In this regard, they believe that any loss of linked trips arising as a consequence of shoppers diverting food shopping trips from Morpeth town centre would be relatively limited in practice.

‘This is because shoppers who wish to undertake food shopping and have reason to use other shops and services in Morpeth town centre would be less likely to be attracted to the application proposal.

‘Furthermore, if such shoppers did migrate to the development being proposed as part of this application, they do not believe that the range of shops and services available at the proposed site would likely extinguish the requirement to visit a town centre with a wider offer such as Morpeth.’

Housing development

‘It is noted that the specific wording of Policy Emp5B(a) in the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan states: “the uses that may be acceptable include…” (author’s emphasis).

‘The uses set out in Policy Emp5B(a) are preferred rather than prescriptive. Similarly, this policy notably does not set out an exhaustive list of acceptable uses. In substance, it is permissive, not prohibitive.

‘In terms of the thrust of Policy Emp5B(a) seeking to safeguard the site for employment uses, the range of uses which may be considered acceptable are largely non-traditional employment uses, with the exception of Business B1 (including offices, research and development of products and processes, light industry).

Indeed, the majority of the land allocated in Policy Emp5B(a) supports mixed-use non-traditional employment uses including Hotels (C1), Residential Care Homes (C2), Non Residential Institutions (D1) and Assembly and Leisure (D2).

‘In noting the flexibility of Policy Emp5B(a) and the established policy support for the provision of mixed-use non-traditional employment uses on the site, it is relevant not least to have regard to the economic effects and any harm that would arise by virtue of the proposed development which would involve the construction of up to 200 dwellings (Use Class C3).

‘This application site has been brought forward together, in a cumulative and masterplanned way, with the adjacent sites for a first school and a mixed-use commercial development site.

‘Consistently, this application may be considered with regard to the adjacent sites in terms of what are considerable, cumulative sustainability objectives that will be capable of being delivered through the development of these sites, together.

‘In terms of any considered ‘loss’ of employment land within the context of this specific application, it must also be considered in the context of employment land provision in Morpeth as a whole.

‘The evidenced requirement for the provision of 16 hectares of employment land for Morpeth in the emerging Northumberland Local Plan Core Strategy (up to and including 2031) has been consistent throughout the various stages of the plan preparation process and therefore now carries significant weight.

‘The emerging Core Strategy has also, through a number of stages, recognised the advantages of employment allocations to the north of the settlement (at Fairmoor and north west of Lancaster Park) due to their locations immediately adjacent to the A1 Trunk Road and proximity of junctions linking the A1 and new Morpeth Northern Bypass.

‘Whilst the employment allocation involving the land north west of Lancaster Park is a relatively recent addition to the emerging Core Strategy, this now benefits from an outline consent and is considered to be a viable, available and deliverable site during the remainder of the plan period.

‘The Fairmoor employment allocation is long-standing in the Castle Morpeth Local Plan but now benefits from Rural Enterprise Zone status and again is likely to come forward during the period up to and including 2031.

‘These two sites combined satisfy the evidenced need for 16 hectares of employment land in Morpeth during the plan period.

‘Land is also shown as being safeguarded for employment purposes in the emerging Northumberland Local Plan Core Strategy, south of Coopies Lane Industrial Estate to the southern end of the settlement, to serve the needs of the town beyond 2031.

‘It is acknowledged that the area is well used by local residents to exercise dogs and it is also used by walkers/cyclists travelling between the Stobhill and Loansdean areas.

‘However, the nature of the use is largely to follow fairly defined walking routes, extending through the woods and across the east-west desire line with the exception of the area around and in front of the pond where walkers throw sticks and balls for their dogs.

‘It is considered that in qualitative terms, the retained space within the proposed scheme, and linked woodland area to the pond, would bring about a significantly enhanced visual, wider recreational offer and also significantly greater amenity value than presently exists.

‘Importantly also, it would allow for the main present use of the site i.e. walking, including the walking of dogs, to be retained and, again, significantly enhanced as an experience through the provision of improved footpath connectivity and surfacing, trim trails, amenity seating etc.

‘These (taken together) present notably, very important qualitative gains in contrast to the existing position and should be taken into account when examining the materiality of the quantitative loss.’

Education development

‘In addition to having the ability to accommodate an increase in pupils in the catchment area, the architects for the development have confirmed that the design of the school is modular and such that it offers future expansion opportunities able to respond to future population growth.

‘It is acknowledged that the application site is comparatively less centrally located than the existing Morpeth First School.

‘However, the application site is nevertheless located within the same educational catchment area as the Goose Hill school, within a predominantly residential area, and moreover within a location that is evidently sustainable.

‘It is accessible by sustainable modes of transport and represents a viable and accessible location.’

‘The development of the school would significantly increase the on-site sports provision and the external educational provision would also be enhanced through the delivery of high quality pitches, multi-use games areas and ancillary facilities.

‘At a strategic and long-term level, the provision of a new school with significantly improved facilities would also contribute towards the council’s emerging focus to contribute towards a strong and competitive economy by providing a well-educated workforce for the county and would be in accordance with the policies of the development plan and aims of the NPPF.’