Villagers raise concerns over green belt housing proposal

The Ponteland High School dining room was packed throughout the public meeting
The Ponteland High School dining room was packed throughout the public meeting

HUNDREDS of residents turned out for a public meeting about a housing application that will have major implications on the future of Ponteland.

People asked questions and made comments about a few different sections of Lugano Group’s outline proposal for up to 280 homes and other facilities on a site at Birney Hill.

The opposition has been led by the Ponteland Greenbelt Group, which was set up to oppose all applications in the designated area, and more than 4,000 people formally objected. Hundreds of letters of support have also been submitted.

What was said a week last Wednesday in a packed dining hall at Ponteland High School will add to the material to be considered by Northumberland County Council’s west area planning committee on Wednesday, October 30.

To start the meeting, principal planning officer Mark Ketley went through the plans and said that officers will have to consider whether the positive aspects of the scheme would meet the ‘special circumstances’ test to justify building on the green belt. He said there would be up to £13.5million of community benefits.

The site covers 82.5 hectares of agricultural land south of Darras Hall, although it ‘wraps around’ the Grade-II listed Birney Hall.

Ponteland resident Raymond Sproul said: “If the plans being put forward by Lugano were approved, it would take a large swathe of our green belt away.

“And if the county council is not careful, we would be brought closer to the north of Newcastle, particularly as the city council has plans for thousands of new homes which would push the urban sprawl further north towards Ponteland.”

Verity Shepley then asked the company which brownfield sites were considered and ruled out before Birney Hill was chosen.

Lugano planning director Scott Munro said that it had examined a range of these locations in Newcastle and Northumberland.

He added: “According to its own data, the county council is looking to build around 24,000 new homes between now and 2030/31, which is about 1,200 per year, and the latest incarnation of its housing strategy says that four to five thousand of this total will be accommodated on brownfield land, so that’s the issue facing the authority and many others across the country.”

County councillor for Ponteland South Peter Jackson, leader of the Conservative group on the authority, read out a statement from him and Hexham MP Guy Opperman, whose ward includes Ponteland.

He said: “The green belt is not some obscure planning hurdle for developers to jump, but a living, breathing reminder of why so many people chose to make Ponteland their home in the first place.

“This development would open the floodgates to building on the Ponteland green belt and would see the beginning of the end of Ponteland and Darras Hall as we know it.

“If given the go-ahead, this development, built on slick PR promises of cash and against local residents’ wishes, would see protection for the green belt effectively torn up. The money men and big developers would have their foot in the door.

“I have been a local councillor now for over 20 years and been involved in more campaigns than I care to remember and I can truly say the strength of support that Guy and I have received on the doorstep to fight these developers has been overwhelming.

“Where other communities may have baulked at the fight and given in, our community stood tall and refused to surrender our green belt simply to line the pockets of others.”

Later in the meeting, Coun Veronica Jones, who represents Ponteland West, asked if there were any plans for further housing applications in her ward. Lugano owns the 2,500-acre Dissington Estate.

Development director Richard Robson said Birney Hill is the only scheme it is currently going forward with, but if more housing need is identified, the company will review its property portfolio.

He added: “We appreciate that many people are fundamentally opposed to building on the green belt but at some point in the past, Darras Hall wasn’t there, at some point, large housing estates in the area weren’t in place – this is the process that all communities go through.”

In response to a question about how much the ‘affordable homes’ in the scheme would cost, Mr Munro said the figure would be around £110,000, with £230,000 the average price in Darras Hall for similar types of property to what would be available and £190,000 the average in Ponteland village.

But Ponteland town councillor Adam Shanley, aged 23, said: “As someone looking to buy a house who could benefit from such a scheme, I’m totally opposed to taking away some of our precious green belt to provide new housing, even if some of it is affordable.”

One of the other issues raised was the concern that nearby properties will be more likely to flood from the surface water run-off coming from the new estate.

Darras Hall resident John Blundell said: “It’s obvious that serious flooding which already occurs in Ponteland will be exacerbated by putting tarmac down.”

Hank Craggs, of Hadrian Court, said his and other homes already face problems with surface water from Birney Hill and Birney Hall and the amount of run-off would be bigger if the development was approved, with water flowing from the whole west end of the site.

Mr Munro said the measures that would be introduced, including sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), would help matters because the decades-old system in place at the moment is unable to cope with changing climate conditions.

“Our system would capture water at various parts of the site and flows can be managed – they will only become pools as a last resort,” he added. Mr Ketley said the Environment Agency had initially put forward an objection, but it was now assessing a new drainage strategy submitted by Lugano on September 25.

The company says that part of the community benefit would be the funding of traffic measures to help alleviate traffic concerns.

Ian Ainsworth asked if the measures covered Darras Hall and if money would be made available to implement them.

Mr Robson said that traffic surveys were carried out in the Darras Hall area and the contributions would include improvements at key junctions across Ponteland. In addition, the location of the development would allow people working in Newcastle to avoid using the A696 in Ponteland village.

The site would be run by a community land trust, described as a non-profit corporation that would remove the cost of land ownership from the buying process and make sure that the development delivers on its promises.

Although Lugano said it has been in touch with local organisations which are interested in being involved, residents raised concerns that bodies from outside the area have also been approached.

One person at the meeting had a different take on the proposal.

John Chappell said: “Not everyone is opposed to the application and the community benefits need to be considered because we’ve all complained about the infrastructure problems for many years and nothing has been done about them.

“I would ask the councillors who have spoken out against it if they would stand up and say they will be able to secure the funding we need for our schools and services.”

The site would also include play areas and a hub with a farm shop and small business centre.