Just when the finishing line was in sight, Morpeth's neighbourhood plan has been threatened with judicial review following a challenge by a major landowner.
At this morning's meeting of Northumberland County Council's decision-making cabinet, members were expecting to give the final sign-off by formally 'making' the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan. It passed independent examination in September last year followed by a referendum in February in which 93.4 per cent of those voting supported the plan, based on a turnout of 29.5 per cent.
However, members were shocked to hear that the local authority had received notice of a possible judicial review on Thursday afternoon. The grounds of the challenge, which was made by Mitford Estate and described by one councillor as 'a pretty despicable act', had only been received earlier today.
Recommending that the cabinet deferred its decision to its May meeting, senior planning manager Mark Ketley told the meeting: "We feel we would probably be able to put up a robust defence, but we do need some time to consider this and take some legal advice."
Coun Jeff Reid, the Lib Dem group leader, said he was 'shocked' and 'disappointed' at being asked to defer the decision, saying they should make the plan and wait to see if there's a judicial review. He added: "The inspector (who carried out the independent examination) says it's fine, the people of Morpeth have said it's fine, if a developer says, 'I won't be able to make a few million quid when I build that estate', then tough."
Conservative group leader, Peter Jackson, said: "These things (neighbourhood plans) take years; if you read it, you can see the level of detail that's been involved and it has been done under advice all along. Communities across Northumberland are crying out for some planning protection at the moment because we don't have a core strategy in place."
Coun Ian Swithenbank said it's 'obviously very frustrating', but warned it would be 'unwise to press ahead at this stage', while Coun Robert Arckless pointed out that they were obliged to make the plan following the referendum result, but was wary about ignoring the advice of the planning team, describing it as a 'very unfortunate situation'.
After it was revealed that the challenge came from Mitford Estate, Coun Jackson said: "It's a pretty despicable act to come in at the last minute, from someone that you would hope is part of the community but instead is setting itself against the community."
Coun Reid added: "This is past the last minute. Our job here today is to make the plan. It has been through a proper process. This is suddenly about money and it's not right."
Members were not happy with the situation, but wanted to allow the officers the time to consider the challenge properly. A majority voted to support the deferral, with Coun Reid voting against.