TOWN councillors have blasted moves by their county counterparts to pull out of a major housing inquiry.
The Herald reported last week that Northumberland County Council had withdrawn from the fight against Bellway’s appeal to build 200 homes at South Loansdean after secret discussions.
The North Area Planning Committee agreed behind closed doors that the council should no longer defend its previous decision to reject the application when an appeal is heard next month after officers advised that the outdated Castle Morpeth Local Plan does not carry sufficient weight in the new National Planning Policy Framework.
Now only Bellway and the South Morpeth Coalition of residents will be full participants in the inquiry.
Morpeth Town Council, which opposes the development, had decided it would leave the detailed presentation of the case to county officers.
But members of the town’s Finance and General Purposes Committee said they may have taken a different view had they known about the county council’s intention to pull out.
Chairman David Parker said: “The town council bitterly regrets this decision and is appalled that the decision was taken behind closed doors and that none of the objectors had any opportunity to challenge the views presented to the committee.
“The town council decided not to become a full participant in the inquiry as it understood that the county council would be defending the decision of the North Area Planning Committee. If it had known that the county council would not participate in the inquiry it might have made a different decision.
“Morpeth Town Council has submitted a statement to the Inspector and expects to defend the statement when the public inquiry is held.”
Morpeth Mayor Mark Horton said: “This decision has removed the opportunity of testing anything in cross-examination. It has taken a major tool away from us.”
Town and county councillor Andrew Tebbutt says he is seeking legal advice as to whether he can play a full role in defending the original decision.
The Bellway plans were originally turned down in February by six votes to two, against officers’ recommendations, following more than 200 letters of objection to the application and a 468-name petition.
Town councillors shared residents’ concerns that the scheme would be outside the settlement boundary, remove greenfield land and put extra pressure on schools and services, and they say the council’s status as a Neighbourhood Plan Frontrunner should mean that local people have more say in where such development should take place.
Planning and Transport Committee Chairman Graeme Trotter said: “The town council sees this prospective major development as premature as it is presently engaged as a frontrunner in promoting a Neighbourhood Plan for Morpeth.
“The town council thinks it is vital that the appeal fails in order that the town council and Morpeth residents have the opportunity to include the Loansdean site along with other possible sites in determining where future housing development should occur.
“The council hopes that the Planning Inspector can be persuaded that the existing District Local Plan and the saved policies from it remain as relevant today as they were when approved back in 2003.”
Councillors were divided on how much weight is given to the Local Plan under the new system, but they agreed it should be examined by an Inspector.
Coun Les Cassie said: “The right place to test that is with the Inspector in the inquiry, that is absolutely what the Inspector should do.
“I’m personally surprised that the county council is not going to defend its position in front of the Inspector. I think that would have been the right thing to do. I don’t know the reasons why it is not doing that, they might well be valid, but we don’t know.”
Coun Tebbutt added that urgent discussions should be held with the county authority as its reluctance to back the Local Plan could have implications for the whole area.
A Northumberland County Council spokeswoman said the decision to hold its discussion in private was in accordance with regulations.
She said: “Advice of this nature is confidential and its disclosure to the public, including the appellant, would risk prejudicing the council’s case should members have decided to continue to contest the appeal.
“The item under discussion was not a re-hearing of the planning application, rather it was to explain to members the implications of the NPPF introduced by the Government after the committee had made its earlier decision. Public speaking was not part of that process, regardless of whether the matter was heard in public or private.
“The council is keen to stress that the item was heard in accordance with the access to information rules of procedure and consistent with how members are advised on proceedings involving the provision of legal advice.”
The public inquiry will begin in Morpeth Town Hall on Tuesday, July 17.