Housing fight is ditched in secret

COUNTY planners have pulled out of the fight against a large Loansdean housing development after secret talks.

Plans by Bellway to build 200 homes on a greenfield site outside Morpeth were rejected by Northumberland County Council’s North Area Planning Committee in February amid huge opposition to the application.

The developer immediately lodged an appeal and a public inquiry is set to take place next month.

But with just weeks to go, the council has said it will no longer defend its decision.

Now only the South Morpeth Coalition residents’ action group will be left to make the case for the planning refusal, backed by submissions from Morpeth Town Council and local members.

Chairman David Holden said: “People are outraged, angry and have lost faith in the process. We thought our faith had been restored after we got the decision by councillors to reject this application, but now we feel badly let down.

“They made this decision to pull out behind closed doors. The public weren’t allowed into this committee so we had no chance to influence the councillors and we don’t know the detailed reasoning behind their conclusion.

“The fact that the council has backed out means we have to fight this ourselves. We have registered as an official party for the appeal. There would have been three — the developer, the council and us. Now there are just two, the developer and us.

“We are doing our research and will do the best we can. We still believe there is a strong case to reject this application.”

Members originally went against officer advice to throw out the Bellway plans by six votes to two. But the U-turn came in a closed session of the planning committee last Thursday. The council has not explained why it was discussed in private.

Officers said they could not provide a robust case to justify the original decision as new national planning policy gives less weight to old documents such as the Castle Morpeth Local Plan, which the authority uses in the absence of its own Local Plan.

Executive Member for Planning and Regeneration Tom Brechany said: “The council has reviewed the application against the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the new national planning policy introduced by the Government in March.

“This policy is intended to deliver growth and gives less weight to locally agreed policies such as the Castle Morpeth Local Plan where these are out of date. As a result, the North Area Planning Committee decided, after measured and careful consideration, that it could not provide a robust case at the inquiry and so would not proceed to defend the county council’s case.”

However, county councillor for the Loansdean area Andrew Tebbutt, who was not allowed to attend the meeting or see the report, says he can see no reason to drop out of the process.

“I am horrified by this decision and extremely angry 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,” he said.

“The new NPPF is untested and there is little or no case law for officers to be so certain that the existing policies would not stand the test at the public inquiry, particularly as the final version of NPPF allows for transitional arrangements that give extra time to areas that underwent change to a unitary authority. I believe it is officers’ duty to defend the existing policies.

“The public inquiry will go ahead, although the impact of the council’s decision has yet to be seen. Clearly the developer will be delighted, in contrast to the feelings of the overwhelming majority of residents who have fought so hard for over 16 years to protect the town settlement boundary and this valuable greenfield site.

“They will feel very let down and abandoned by officialdom, but we will not give up.

“I will be working with the South Morpeth Coalition and my Morpeth Town Council colleagues to persuade the planning inspector that the existing District Local Plan and the saved policies from it remain as relevant today as they were when they were approved in 2003.”

Bellway is seeking to build a mix of properties at South Loansdean, including 100 affordable homes, some services and a new roundabout.

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But there has been significant objection, including 214 letters and a 468-name petition from the public, as well as opposition from Morpeth Town Council.

Protesters say the scheme will remove greenfield land, it will be outside the settlement boundary, put extra pressure on schools and services and constitute over-development.

The town council says its case is strengthened by being named a Neighbourhood Plan Frontrunner, which will allow the community to decide where development should take place, as approving such a large housing scheme at this stage will prejudice the process.

Town councillor David Parker, who questioned the county council’s actions at the North Area Committee on Monday, said: “This county council decision, in my view, goes against the interests of the people of the town and in particular is bound to be a source of disquiet amongst the people of the Loansdean area.

“I’m very annoyed about it. I think it is letting Morpeth down badly.

“I was told that it was decided on taking legal advice that it was in the public interest to be dealt with in camera. I don’t know what advice the committee got, but as far as I’m concerned it is not in the public interest. The public interest would be better served by the county council appearing at this hearing and upholding its own committee decision. There was a clear majority of councillors against this application and they are just not supporting their own decision. I think that is very unfortunate.”

Bellway did not wish to comment.

The planning inquiry is scheduled to be heard at Morpeth Town Hall for up to six days from Tuesday, July 17.