Standing room only as town fights back

THERE was standing room only at Morpeth Town Hall as a major planning inquiry got under way.

More than 200 people turned up for the start of the appeal hearing on Tuesday, which will determine plans by Bellway to build 200 homes on the southern edge of Morpeth.

The inquiry was delayed as Inspector Malcolm Rivett tried to accommodate the public, and urgent calls were made to try to find a bigger meeting room, or a suitable public address system so that those standing could hear the proceedings.

With no alternative venue available, the appeal eventually got under way in the Corn Exchange, with Mr Rivett telling residents he had noted their opposition to the housing proposal.

Bellway was initially refused permission to build on a greenfield site at South Loansdean in February when Northumberland County Council’s North Area Planning Committee voted against officers’ advice.

However, the council has withdrawn from defending its decision after a meeting behind closed doors, in which officers advised that the Local Plan used to reject the application was out of date and would be given less weight in new national policies.

The appeal began with opening statements from the applicant and representatives of the South Morpeth Coalition (SMC) residents’ action group, which was formed to oppose the plans.

Bellway representative Andrew Williamson said the scheme would include 100 affordable homes, as well as a commercial element for services and amenities.

He added that the main issues focus on the weight attached to the Local Plan, housing supply, sustainability and highways impact.

“The appeal scheme will be a sustainable development, having regard to its economic, social and environmental aspects and will make a material contribution to widening the choice of high quality homes, both market and affordable, and contribute to the shortfall in the local planning authority’s five year housing land supply,” he said.

Statements were also taken by local councillors, residents and community representatives, all speaking in objection.

And yesterday, the SMC set out its case.

The group states that the former Castle Morpeth borough should more than meet the requirements of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for housing supply with all the current projects in development.

It specifically identifies brownfield land in the north area of the town and near Stannington, which is being progressed over the next few years.

Coalition Chairman David Holden told Mr Rivett that the county council and Bellway’s agent Signet claim the projected housing supply for the next five years will be below the amount required by the NPPF, giving estimated totals of 621 and 617 respectively.

But he explained how it can be increased from the evidence supplied by both parties.

“The NCC projection includes an allowance for 109 completions on small sites (those of less than five units) at a rate of 45 percent of permissions outstanding at the period start and the council can show a consistent delivery of such units over history,” he said.

“Signet has steadfastly refused to recognise any completions whatsoever from sites with less than five units permitted, even though the characteristics of Northumberland are that many such sites come forward and form an important part of the housing supply.

“This is one of the reasons why Signet underestimated badly the completions for the Castle Morpeth borough in 2011/12. It estimated 68 units, whereas the actual completion was 108 units.

“Similarly, Signet includes an allowance of 104 units for specific windfall sites in the last two years of the five-year period.

“NCC has taken an extremely cautious view and allocated no housing whatsoever from those sites within the period, mainly due to Section 106 agreements not being signed as of the cut-off date for the report.

“Clearly, it is unlikely that all the Castle Morpeth sites will deliver some houses, but there is a very strong prospect that one or more of those sites could deliver substantial numbers within the period to a similar level or higher than that projected by Signet.”

Other additions include 60 properties from the scheme to develop housing on land at Northgate Hospital, based on information from the planning agents, and a further 73 units at the St Mary’s site near Stannington following recent planning permission.

Mr Holden also mentioned the potential future development of land next to the St George’s Hospital site and a Persimmon Homes masterplan of its interests to the north of the town — Fairmoor, East End Lane/Fulbeck, north of Lancaster Park and Peacock Gap.

The SMC total for 2012-17 is 858, greater than the required additional buffers of five percent and the more stringent 20 percent that the county council is taking into account.

Mr Holden said: “We believe that the evidence presented here demonstrates a robust five-year housing supply in both Castle Morpeth and the wider strategic region and that this housing supply calculation conforms to the requirements of NPPF.”

He raised concerns that Bellway would not be able to provide 50 percent affordable housing on site in the current climate, giving examples of applicants in Alnwick and Ponteland which had successfully argued to reduce this percentage in recent months.

“As the market price is so high in Morpeth, the ‘affordable’ properties for sale could not reasonably be described as affordable family homes,” he added.

The inquiry continues and is scheduled to run until Friday.