Planners bid to protect ‘amazing’ Greenbelt

At each day of the inquiry so far, dozens of people have been in attendance.
At each day of the inquiry so far, dozens of people have been in attendance.

Council planners have urged a Government minister to protect an ‘amazing and spectacular’ Greenbelt site in Ponteland from being developed for housing.

The public inquiry into Lugano Group’s appeal against Northumberland County Council’s West Area Planning Committee’s decision to turn down an outline proposal for up to 280 homes and other facilities on a site at Birney Hill in October 2013 is in its second week.

Three of the original six reasons for refusal are being put forward by the authority. They concern the harm to the green belt, landscape character and the setting on designated heritage assets.

It believes that none of the positive features put forward by the company should be classed as very special circumstances.

Planning inspector John Gray will make a recommendation to the Department for Communities and Local Government and the final decision will be made by its Secretary of State, Eric Pickles.

One of the people called to give evidence for the county council was senior development and delivery manager Mark Ketley.

He said: “The starting point for determining the appeal is that the proposed development would cause harm to the green belt through inappropriateness.

“In addition, it has been demonstrated that significant further harm to the green belt would be caused as a result of adverse impacts on openness and landscape character.”

The council also contends that the scheme would fail to have regard to the statutory duty of preserving the setting of listed buildings on the site (Birney Hill Farmhouse, Birney Hall and a long-standing windmill) as imposed by Section 66 of the of the Listed Buildings and Conservations Areas Act.

When asked to go through his evidence by the barrister representing the authority, Simon Pickles, Mr Ketley added: “This site is quite amazing and spectacular and it’s one of the prime sites for housing that a developer would want because it’s in a prime location near Newcastle Airport and it would provide beautiful views of the countryside for its residents.

“But our position is that this site makes a high contribution to green belt purposes and so the harm to the site should not be overridden by any level of affordable housing contribution to Ponteland.”

If the application is approved, a Birney Hill Community Land Trust, in addition to managing the proposed community farmland within the site, would provide a total financial contribution of £13.5million.

These benefits would include £3.6million to help provide off-site affordable housing, £1.63million to implement and manage the site’s proposed business hub, a £700,000 contribution towards a Ponteland centre traffic management plan, a £1.2million contribution towards improvements to school and leisure facilities and a £2.5million community fund.

Setting out how the council thinks Mr Gray and Mr Pickles should view them in the context of the application, Mr Ketley said: “Whilst limited weight attaches to some of these considerations in the overall planning and green belt balance, it is the council’s position that the contribution that the scheme would make to market and affordable housing supply and the range of other benefits cited by the appellant would, neither individually nor cumulatively, be sufficient to override the fundamental policy conflict arising from this inappropriate development proposal in the open countryside and green belt.”

Although noise issues are no longer considered a reason for refusal – the proposed homes would be only a few yards away from the Newcastle Airport flight path – he said they do compromise Lugano’s claim that the scheme will be an ‘exemplar garden suburb’ because noise mitigation measures would have be incorporated into their design.

David Cooper, representing Lugano, said this comment was “bringing noise in through the back door” and given that the issues would be addressed through conditions, the inspector should not give any weight to it when balancing the positives and negatives of the application.

Later in his cross examination, when asking Mr Ketley about very special circumstances, he said: “Surely the more attractive (a development site is), the better if you want new housing that will attract the people who will help to improve the region’s economy?”