Battle lines drawn as public inquiry begins

Simon Pickles, speaking on behalf of Northumberland County Council, during his opening statement for the Birney hill public inquiry.
Simon Pickles, speaking on behalf of Northumberland County Council, during his opening statement for the Birney hill public inquiry.

The company behind plans for a new housing estate on green belt land in Ponteland was accused of favouring style over substance on the opening day of a public inquiry.

Northumberland County Council’s west area planning committee turned down an outline proposal by Lugano Group for up to 280 homes and other facilities on a site at Birney Hill in October 2013.

A total of 4,310 objections were submitted and there were 487 letters supporting the scheme.

A public inquiry, which will run for about two weeks, was set-up following the firm’s appeal and it started on Tuesday at Kingston Park (the Newcastle Falcons ground). Planning inspector John Gray will make a recommendation to the Government later in the year.

Three of the committee’s reasons for refusal remain in place. It ruled that it would be inappropriate development in the green belt and the special circumstances cited by the applicant are insufficient to justify building the homes.

Members also determined that the estate would cause demonstrable harm to the landscape character of the open countryside and have a negative impact on designated heritage assets such as Birney Hall and a long-standing windmill.

The other three reasons – failure to adequately demonstrate that surface water from the development could be disposed of in a manner which would not increase flood risk elsewhere, insufficient information in regard to the likely impact of aircraft noise and not enough detail about archaeological potential of the site – have been withdrawn.

The Ponteland Greenbelt Group, which was set up in 2012 to oppose applications within the designated land, is being represented at the appeal by barrister Peter Dixon.

In his opening statement, he said: “Whilst not all of the 82 hectares of land would be built upon, the practical effect of the development would be to remove the entire site from the green belt, irreversibly changing its character and transforming what is currently pleasant agricultural land that forms part of a broader swathe of open countryside into a residential suburb unconnected with its surroundings.

“As far as the Ponteland Greenbelt Group is concerned, the factors relied on by the appellant fall far short of what is needed to justify such substantial harm to the green belt.

Mr Dixon referred to the Hans Christian Anderson fable ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, where the Emperor’s credentials did not withstand close scrutiny, and said that the inspector will determine “whether the hyperbole lavished by the appellant on its own proposal are similarly misconceived”.

David Cooper, representing Lugano, said the proposal would create an “exemplar garden suburb”, 70 of the homes would be classed as affordable and there would be a plethora of benefits to the community as financial contributions would be made towards public transport and traffic management improvements, along with sewerage infrastructure.

“This once in a lifetime opportunity will not come round again,” he added.

He also said that the estate would address the housing shortfall in the area as delivery in Ponteland has been “very poor” for a number of years.

The county council’s barrister, Simon Pickles, said Lugano had failed to “properly grasp the scale of impact and harm resulting from the proposal in green belt terms”.