PLANS to build a new Morpeth apartment block came under scrutiny last week in a public hearing into the developer’s appeal.
McCarthy and Stone is seeking permission to build 51 retirement flats on the Old Headmaster’s Lawn at Cottingwood Lane after its initial bid was rejected by Northumberland County Council’s North Area Planning Committee.
The application has met fierce opposition from local residents and Morpeth Town Council.
Here, we present the key issues raised at the appeal. The judgment of Planning Inspector Anthony Lyman is expected within seven weeks.
Pedestrian safety around proposed flats at Cottingwood Lane is a fundamental concern, opponents say.
Fears have been raised about visibility of the road and elderly residents crossing to a footpath, particularly if there are parked cars and people are using a mobility scooter.
Highways consultant Andrew Dmoch, who was commissioned by Northumberland County Council to help defend the appeal, said: “I have a fundamental concern about pedestrian safety in that location.
“I appreciate that a safety audit has considered the discussion about vehicles, but the section on pedestrians and vulnerable road users has no mention at all about elderly people having to stop and wait on the carriageway without any kerbs or protection at all.”
Neil Appleton, the highways consultant for McCarthy and Stone, said there were small numbers of pedestrians involved, highways officers had not raised objections and a safety audit did not identify a problem.
“The road safety record doesn’t show any pedestrian related accidents for five years, even though activity goes on there now,” he explained.
But council Principal Planning Officer Mark Ketley said: “We haven’t got vulnerable pedestrians crossing at the moment.
“The low numbers of pedestrians is not an argument. Accidents happen when pedestrians and cars come together.”
And Jon Laws, of the Cottingwood Lane Residents’ Action Group, said: “When the kids leave school there are two teachers standing on opposite sides of the pavement and if cars come they physically stop them. It is a managed crossing. Residents won’t have the benefit of two teachers stopping the traffic.
“The argument that there hasn’t been an accident there really isn’t an argument because the retirement flats aren’t there now.”
He also criticised plans to cut a raised cobbled area next to the school entrance, which he said was a safety feature put in after an accident.
CHARACTER AND APPEARANCE
Arguments about the impact of the proposed development on the character of the area and neighbouring properties focus on its scale and mass.
McCarthy and Stone representative Giles Cannock said there is no dispute about it being within a settlement boundary and sustainable location, while the principle of sheltered housing and flatted development is accepted.
He said it would be two to three storey, with a small element of four-storey, and had been carefully designed to minimise its impact.
However, Principal Planning Officer Mark Ketley said: “If this was a two-storey development we probably wouldn’t be sitting here debating the third reason for refusal, but it is predominantly a three-storey building, with small areas of two and four storeys.
“The land slopes north to south and this site sits on a plateau within that. The ground levels are about two to three metres higher than the surrounding street level in Cottingwood Lane so already it is at a much higher level than the surrounding properties and then you are talking about constructing a two, three, four storey building. That would have a massive detrimental effect on some of the properties that neighbour the site.”
He said residents in South Terrace and School Close would be particularly affected, sitting only 30metres away from the proposed building, which would have its ground floor at the first floor level of existing homes.
Mr Cannock said: “The section that is closest to School Close and South Terrace is two storey. The council has stated that if we were talking about a two-storey development on this site there would have been no third reason for refusal so there is an inconsistency.
“It is said that there is the potential to result in the new building appearing over dominant, however as a result of the topography it is common within the area for some houses to be on higher ground than their neighbours. Therefore in this situation I do not consider that the new building will appear unduly dominant.”
Residents argued that they would still look out onto three or four storeys.
Marilyn Tweddle said: “If you stood in my kitchen you would have no view of the sky whatsoever because the view would be obscured by the flats. At the moment I see a hedge and sky.”
Another resident questioned whether proposed tree screening would have any effect and concern was expressed that the car park for the development would be at a higher level than homes and lights would shine into rooms.
Mr Cannock said there would be few traffic movements, particularly after 7pm, and fencing and tree screening would prevent any problems.
Residents also said balconies on the proposed development could cause overlooking, but the developer said they would be set at a sufficient distance from other properties to avoid the issue.
Coun Andrew Tebbutt said: “We are focused today on the minutia of the issues around this particular development, but we need to be clear that this is a greenfield site and these plans were a complete surprise to everybody. The immediate reaction, I wouldn’t necessarily call it nimbyism, was people don’t want any development on this land. It is long established land in an older part of this historic market town.
“When you are talking about two, three or four storeys it is going to have a fundamental impact on that environment forever. It will alter the natural environment, it will alter people’s habits and it will alter what they see out of their upstairs windows.
“We have to make sure that is not forgotten in all the minutia. It will fundamentally change everybody’s life.”
Henry Warne, from Morpeth Civic Society, said: “I would endorse the concerns that have already been expressed about the scale and mass of this building. I would suggest that it is not appropriate to this location. It may be that some form of development is acceptable here, but it does seem that a building that is so large and occupies so much of the site is something that doesn’t go with the green character of Cottingwood Lane or this part of Morpeth.”
But Tim Nichol, from the King Edward VI School Foundation Trust, argued that development has already changed Morpeth.
“The character of Morpeth has fundamentally changed over the last five years with the consent of the town council and county council. We have the health centre being built now, and a paddock for horses is now a petrol station. There is a supermarket in what was a residential street,” he said.
The risk to protected trees from development proved a thorny issue.
Of particular concern was the impact of lowering a wall to create more visibility for drivers and pedestrians, which could involve lowering soil levels by around 100mm.
Consultant Ian Keen, on behalf of the applicant, said: “A lot of it is organic matter and there are going to be no major roots in that element. You can get rid of that organic level without any concern for the trees. Beyond that, you could reduce the soil level if needed by 100mm without doing serious damage to the trees.
“The amount of root loss that is likely to occur is very small in comparison to the whole root capacity of the trees.
“I don’t think there is a need to reduce the soil level at all, but if it is required to get the visibility line and the required reduction in the soil level is 100mm I can’t see any effect on the trees.”
However, Professor Alan Davison, who lives near the proposed site, said there was a risk even from small soil reductions.
“In principle, especially when you have got trees with Tree Preservation Orders on them, you do not disturb the soil at all,” he said.
“If there is organic material on the top of soil, roots will grow into this. Sycamore is very good at this.
“I would say reducing the soil level is risky at least to 100mm. It goes against the general principle of deep-rooted trees in a protection zone.
“It is a relatively small part of the protection area, but it needs to be seen against the background of major changes that are going to be seen elsewhere on the site.”
Mr Keen said the latest policy advice is that disturbing soil should be avoided, but if necessary and professional advice is sought, it can be done.
He said there may be no reason to reduce the levels due to the design of the wall height reduction scheme.
The experts also disagreed about the impact of construction work.
Mr Davison said he had seen sites where hundreds of trees had died as a result of disturbance to water levels and there could be a risk as soon as work begins to cut away the entrance to the plot as the trees will be left without water.
He said: “As soon as you get the cutting there is no water coming to that site. In a typical North East spring the trees would be dead, they are not protected.
“Because they grow in this condition they develop a root system that is appropriate. What they can’t deal with is change.
“This is why you get trees dying. You are suddenly imposing a change on these trees.
“They will not respond quickly enough to get roots down to the required level. It is out of the question.”
Mr Keen argued that the trees would be able to adapt.
“The roots of these trees will not be significantly harmed or damaged,” he explained.
“If water levels rise there is a serious issue, but reducing the water levels is much less harmful to the tree, simply because you get an element of precipitation through the canopy.”
Mr Keen added that there will be many more trees planted on the site if the scheme is approved.
Concerns were raised about safe access to Cottingwood Lane for bin collections, emergency vehicles, removal vans and construction vehicles.
Planning Inspector Anthony Lyman questioned the applicant about arrangements for bin collections from the 51 flats over concern that the refuse vehicle would block the road.
However, highways consultant Neil Appleton said: “It shouldn’t block the highway, it would block the entrance. The service goes to other parts of the street. If anyone was going to be blocked they would be blocked anyway.
“You have to be mindful that this is a relatively quiet road for most of the day. If the refuse vehicle is holding some traffic up it is relatively low numbers.”
Mr Appleton added that emergency vehicles should also be able to get through.
But one resident at the hearing said: “I’m not happy with the amount of ‘shoulds’ — a fire engine ‘should’ be able to get in. I don’t think that is good enough.”
And Coun Andrew Tebbutt said: “We have heard that there would be a reasonable turnover of clients for these flats therefore the issue of removal vans will not be insignificant.
“I happened to be in Cottingwood Lane when this application first came in and a fairly large vehicle, but not an articulated vehicle, was trying to get up that entrance. It took three-quarters of a hour.”
Coun Les Cassie said it is also important to consider the impact of removing vast quantities of material from the site by HGV.
He was told that a construction management plan has been submitted.
Both the Cottingwood Lane Action Group and Northumberland County Council said that the proposed 26 car parking spaces — 19 for residents, six for visitors and one for the manager — are not enough.
There are concerns about a potential overspill onto the already congested Cottingwood Lane and Inspector Anthony Lyman said there was only one space available when he visited the street.
Coun Andrew Tebbutt said there could also be frequent visits by food delivery vans as residents would not want to carry shopping bags uphill from the town centre.
But highways consultant Neil Appleton said the number of spaces would be sufficient because at similar developments the majority of residents do not have a car.
“Vehicles coming to carry out cleaning or grounds maintenance should in normal circumstances be able to park in a visitor space because they will be arriving during weekday mornings and afternoons and visitors will mainly come at evenings and weekends,” he added.
McCarthy and Stone representative Giles Cannock said that figures given by the council for peak visitor numbers suggest only two cars may need to park outside the site and no evidence was presented to show it to be unsafe.
Building on a deep green field could increase the flood risk to surrounding homes, residents say.
Members of the Cottingwood Lane Action Group say the Old Headmaster’s Lawn acts like a sponge to soak up heavy rainfall and there are fears that taking up part of the site with an apartment block and car park could leave homes at increased risk of flooding.
Coun Les Cassie said: “The area today is an extremely effective sponge to soak up floodwater that comes down the slope from the school. Very large amounts of water come down that hill and held in that space so they don’t spill out into South Terrace and School Close.
“We are very concerned and very surprised that the county council did not consider this even though we raised it in objections. We believe that the capacity of that site to hold up surface water will be reduced by about 50 per cent, if not more.”
Council planning officer Mark Ketley said the Environment Agency did not raise concerns.
And Technical Design Director for the development George Martin said that only 20 per cent of the capacity would be reduced, while improvements to drainage could reduce the flood risk.
“There will be mechanisms that will improve drainage of the site,” he said.
Inspector Anthony Lyman said a planning condition could address the issue.
The development of the Old Headmaster’s Lawn would provide much-needed funds for King Edward VI School, the planning hearing was told.
King Edward VI School Foundation Trustee Tim Nichol said the school no longer has any use for the site and it is looking to dispose of it.
And he said that selling the land for development would provide funds for improvements to the sixth form and other school projects.
“I don’t think the benefits of the scheme have been underlined in terms of the school,” he said.
“It is very important to recognise that as a resident of Cottingwood Lane the school is set to benefit from the sale of this land.
“The school management and the school governors support the scheme because of the funds it will generate. They will be used to directly benefit the school.
“In particular the school is anxious that the sale should go ahead because it needs these funds to support the improvement of the sixth form, which was last improved in 1972.
“The development should be recognised for the benefit to the pupils not just now, but in the future.”
However, Coun Les Cassie said a more suitable scheme should be considered.
“We wouldn’t have any dispute with the school raising some finance that would be helpful to the school, but we maintain that if the school talks to residents something else will come from it and there could be a more appropriate development rather than this scheme, which is too big,” he said.
“This is an attractive and valued green space that we don’t think should be damaged by this development.”