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Blowing the Whistle on the Shenanigans over the County Council’s “Core Strategy”

May 24, 2016 2:38 PM
By Cllr Joan Tebbutt

In June, County will consult the public on proposed amendments to their Local Plan for Northumberland for the period to 2031, referred to as their "Core Strategy". The draft amendments went to a County Scrutiny Committee on 24th May and then to Cabinet on 31st May and are available on the County website. It is easy to miss an amendment that has a significant impact on the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan and residents of Lancaster Park in particular.

Cllr Joan Tebbutt, Chair of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group, says; "It is extremely disappointing and worrying that, despite the County Council having "made" the Neighbourhood Plan as recently as 10th May, decisions have been made behind closed doors over weeks, if not months, by developers, landowners and County that contradict the Neighbourhood Plan. After everyone's hard work and a massive turnout in favour of the Plan at Referendum on 25th February, this is morally unjustifiable. The clear, democratically expressed wishes of residents have been unceremoniously disregarded".

The Story So Far

Mitford Estates applied to build houses, a trunk road service station, hotel etc. on land west of Lancaster Park, and Morpeth Town Council is currently working together with the Morpeth North Residents' Action Group to prepare our arguments for a Public Inquiry into the Mitford Estates application. The site is outside the settlement boundary and not allocated for development in the Neighbourhood Plan. However, County now propose that the Mitford Estates site be allocated for employment use. The reason given is that there are "deliverability issues" in relation to a separate site of 11 hectares currently allocated for employment use both in the Neighbourhood Plan and in the Core Strategy …until now. This is said to be because Barratt have a long term option on the 11 hectares and are refusing to allow it to be developed unless they are given permission to build houses on another site to the north of Morpeth.

The proposed amendments to the Core Strategy include both the changed status of the Mitford Estates site and that the original 11 hectares become land "safeguarded" for development after 2031.

The "deliverability issues" in relation to the original 11 hectares apparently mean that, if the Core Strategy continued to designate that site or employment, the Core Strategy would fail at Examination at a Public Inquiry. We could then have an Inspector impose changes or a totally different Government imposed Plan for the County.

At a meeting with local County Councillors and the Chair and Vice Chair of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group, Planners were challenged to provide exact details of the "Option" held by Barratt, as we consider it essential that all the information is available to the County decision makers, the community and to the Inspector who will examine the Core Strategy in due course. Councillors also raised concerns about the transparency, accountability and lack of scrutiny of the work of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), who are working with government to decide the exact position of a new Enterprise Zone to be created in North Morpeth beside the A1. The LEP have already provided written support for the Mitford Estates proposal against the democratic wishes of residents as expressed in the Neighbourhood Plan. Planning Officers had no answers to these questions. They were concerned that pausing the process whilst finding the answers would jeopardise their ability to complete the Core Strategy within the time scale allowed by government.

The Consequences

The Neighbourhood Plan cannot be changed and remains the only finalised Plan for the area until such time as the Core Strategy passes Examination at a Public Inquiry, probably in 2017. Technically therefore, Planning Officers and Members of the County's Planning Committees should apply the Neighbourhood Plan policies until a Local Plan for Northumberland is finalised and overrides policies in the Neighbourhood Plan. However, when push comes to shove, will they decide to give more weight to their emerging Core Strategy and the changes it includes? Would there be political pressure not to risk a costly Public Inquiry, given that the Core Strategy itself will "gain weight" after the forthcoming consultation? Only time will tell.

Our Opinion and Apparent Evidence for it

Cllr Joan Tebbutt says; "The situation appears to have been cleverly manipulated and to have been known for months, all behind closed doors. It is more than fishy. It stinks. However, whilst the behaviour of those involved has been shamefully immoral, undemocratic and highly vexatious, it is probably not illegal.

We knew the LEP had been supporting Mitford Estates and that Cllr Davey, Leader of the Labour Administration in County is on their Board. We knew the Planning Officer report to Committee back in November 2015 said that an application for the employment usage by Mitford Estates without housing would be favourably received. We were suspicious of political interference. We were told that, early in March, the Clerk to Mitford Parish Council openly referred to the Mitford Estates site being changed to employment use. We simply did not put two and two together until hindsight indicated that we could and should do so. Now clear explanations and answers to searching questions are required. County and the LEP must be able to demonstrate that everything has been and is above board or delete these proposed amendments."

What you can do

  • As regards the forthcoming consultation on the amendments to the Core Strategy, as many people as possible should lodge well informed objections. An objection has to be based on why you think the proposed changes are "unsound". If County do not change their minds, the Inspector Examining the Core Strategy can make up his own mind in relation to "unresolved objections".
  • Residents may also wish to consider requesting that, if the original 11 hectares are not allocated for employment use in the period to 2031, then they should be included in Green Belt.
  • As regards any potential application from Mitford Estates, residents should object on the basis of the neighbourhood Plan being the only Plan in force. However, you should request, as mitigation if permission should be granted, that there be significant and mature tree planting to ensure the maximum possible screening between Lancaster Park and the new employment site. This would be necessary to prevent light and noise pollution; to clearly separate the residential and employment areas; and to protect the character of Lancaster Park.