Reaction to approval of major plans at key Morpeth sites

The masterplan for the County Hall site.
The masterplan for the County Hall site.
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Traders and councillors have criticised Northumberland County Council after its strategic planning committee approved three major Morpeth proposals on Tuesday by majority votes.

The applications will now be referred to the National Planning Casework Unit, which will either confirm the council’s decisions or pass them to the Secretary of State to make a decision.

The committee was minded to approve a commercial development on the former fire station and Merley Croft sites, up to 200 new homes on the County Hall site and plans to relocate Goose Hill First School to a site at the front of County Hall – a £5.7million investment by the council that will also include a play space, multi-use games area and sports pitch.

The South Morpeth Coalition (SMC) 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.

SMC member and town councillor, Joan Tebbutt, said: “If other towns in Northumberland are developing neighbourhood plans, I would suggest that they are wasting their time as this administration has blatantly ignored our plan four times in only a few months.”

On the impact she believes the commercial development will have, Morpeth Chamber of Trade chairman Jacky Beesley said: “Small and independent businesses in the town centre will be destroyed, with footfall declining by more than 125,000 visits per year.

“We welcome additional retail in Morpeth, but it could and should be located in the town centre.”

Estate agent Charles Robinson, whose office is in Newgate Street, added: “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 formulating a community-led plan, the county council is driving a coach and horses through it, which is extremely sad.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Andrew Tebbutt, whose county council ward includes County Hall, said: “I am bitterly disappointed at the overall outcome, although I do welcome the school proposal going forward as Goose Hill must be replaced.

“In particular, I was appalled at the complete lack of debate from many members of the committee, given the real policy challenges at stake.

“I came away convinced that the current administration has nothing but contempt for the people of Morpeth. Why else would they totally ignore the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan?

“We can but hope that the Secretary of State (Sajid Javid) will call-in all three applications, so a truly independent view of the proposals can be taken.”

Morpeth North county councillor David Bawn, a Conservative Party member, said: “A very large turnout at the planning meeting witnessed a very disappointing result for Morpeth.

“Eloquent defences of the neighbourhood plan were ignored and the proposals were waved through.

“Our hopes now rest with the Secretary of State. Let us hope he listens to the call-in requests and reconsiders these decisions.”

Welcoming the decisions, county council leader Grant Davey said: “The sale of this site has provided a far bigger windfall than expected, with a total capital receipt of around £20million looking likely.

“We live in a democracy and people have every right to protest, but the Government is clear that Neighbourhood Plans are not there to prevent development from taking place.

“As a council, we are committed to supporting the creation of thousands of new jobs and with that brings the need for more housing and the requirements that brings, such as places to shop and eat.

“We are confident the retail plans approved will complement the offer already available in the many fine shops and businesses in the town centre.

“The Government is encouraging councils to think differently in these difficult economic times and future generations, as well as thousands of residents across Northumberland, are set to benefit from our sale of the site and the educational and financial spin-off that will have.”