Spofforth Hill plans for 325 homes approved: after the decision

Spofforth Hill in Wetherby at harvest time. Picture by Stuart Brown. (S)

Spofforth Hill in Wetherby at harvest time. Picture by Stuart Brown. (S)

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Angry campaigners are considering a judicial review in their fight to stop 325 houses being built at Spofforth Hill.

Residents, ward members, and Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke opposed the outline plans for the farmland in Wetherby after they were initially submitted in July 2013.

However, at a heated city plans panel meeting, Leeds City Council (LCC) approved the application from developer Bellway Homes, depending on certain considerations being met.

Disappointed for the more than 300 people who had objected to the plans, resident and campaigner Jim Walton said the next stage after such a vote would be a judicial review. He said: “I think it was expected. We are not surprised it was voted on party lines.

“At our next meeting we should discuss with Coun Procter the implications of this and we shall certainly raise with him that we feel that we are prepared to try and order a judicial review, because we think there is evidence that there has been an element of predetermination.

“It is better than an outright approval which gives the authority to the planning department.”

Before putting forward a motion to defer the application, Wetherby Coun John Procter (Con) questioned the handling of the application and the need for housing in Wetherby.

He told the meeting: “Contrary to what is said here and what we are constantly being told, we don’t need this site, we don’t need any other PAS [Protected Area of Search] site.

“For all of those reasons I don’t believe for one minute that members have the information before them today to grant approval for this site and I would formally propose that this matter be deferred.

“There are some people in Wetherby who will be pleased that we are going to look at some of the matters again, but within that the release of what is a greenfield site that is not allocated for housing – that I do not support.”

Cross Gates and Whinmoor Coun Peter Gruen (Lab), who is also the executive member for neighbourhoods, planning, and personnel, put forward the vote to approve the plans but said he had to be satisfied as to certain points.

He said affordable housing needs to be evenly distributed across the site and that the access might be changed, satisfying ward members and residents.

“The one that concerns me the most is around section 106,” he said.

“I think the panel should reserve the right to look at this when it comes back to us, and it is up to Bellway Homes and the chief planning officer to bring it back to us.

“I will not agree to this unless there is absolute clarity that the off-site contribution is going to happen – that is the reason we are releasing the PAS site.

“Other than that I think this scheme deserves our support and should be gifted a second time round. We are a very long way in the right direction but there are some points we can’t sign off today.”

The section 106 agreement is a set of conditions to be met before planning permission is signed off by the planning officer and is subject to agreement between LCC and the applicants Bellway Homes.

Rob Smith , spokesman for Bellway Homes and the landowners, said: “Spofforth Hill is proposed as the first PAS site set for release. In practice this means that this application will facilitate delivery of housing.

“A grant of planning permission will not only provide demonstrable housing benefits in Wetherby as well as providing a double benefit of providing housing in the city.

“This application promotes development that is sustainable. To approve it would be good, pragmatic, and joined up planning that is in the public interest.”

COUNCILLOR’S CONCERNS

A Wetherby councillor has claimed that more than 1,500 documents that should have been part of the planning file on the Spofforth Hill application were withheld from the public.

Many hundreds of documents, including more than 300 letters of objection, are part of the planning file on the Spofforth Hill application.

However, Coun John Procter (Con) raised concerns at the city plans panel discussing the outline proposal from Bellway Homes that much of this was not made available to the public.

He said: “It is rather concerning that here are over 1,000 pages of information that are not on the file but go to the heart of this matter.

“There is clearly a major issue of how records are kept in this authority, which I will be following up particularly.

“There is a major principle at stake here. This is about how this application as handled, which is frankly shambolic. How is it right that over 1,500 pages that should be on the planning file are not?

“That is nothing short of a disgrace. It is not right and it needs urgently addressing and it goes to the heart of how other applications are handled.

“ It should be about openness and transparency.”

Responding to Coun Procter’s accusations, an LCC spokesman said: “A great deal of time was devoted to this application, both by officers in preparing for its consideration and during the plans panel meeting itself, where it was the subject of several hours’ discussion.

“The vast majority of 1,500 pages of planning documents are held electronically, in line with standard national practice, as of course it would be unfeasible and extremely expensive to print them all out.

“All relevant sections are available to view to the panel and all interested parties.

“The Spofforth Hill site is an important part of local housing land supply and the decision to support this proposal will assist the council in resisting inappropriate development in other greenfield locations.”

Coun Procter also questioned the decision to permit development on the Spofforth Hill site, though officers said no other sites in the surrounding area comply with policy.

He said: “The big question is should this site be released at this time?

“Every member knows no assessment has been made on the surrounding communities. If it had been you would find that if all applications pending consideration at this time were granted there would be 3,000 houses approved.

Pointing to Thorp Arch Trading Estate, which has an application for up to 2,000 currently pending, he added: “How on earth can anyone sit there and say there is nothing available in this area?”

MP’S VIEWPOINT

MP for Elmet and Rothwell Alec Shelbrooke has consistently opposed the Spofforth Hill development and in a recent report from the chief planning officer which recommended approval he raised concerns on behalf of his constituents.

He objected that the housing requirements estimated by LCC are based on out of date figures which have been affected by the recession and increased controls on immigration.

According to Mr Shelbrooke, this has reduced housing demand and the Spofforth Hill plans would be an unnecessary expansion of Wetherby.

Responding to the city plans panel’s decision to approve the plans, he said: “The line has now been drawn clearly in the sand: whilst our local Conservative councillors voted against these plans, ruling Labour Councillors pushed them through with little care for the people their actions affect.

“Of course I recognise that we need to build more homes in the UK, that’s why local Wetherby councillors and I have taken a pragmatic approach by seeking more appropriate sites where facilities and services can be built into new developments instead of sites that simply add more homes to areas where schools and GPs are already oversubscribed.

“Unsurprisingly, Labour ignored the pleas of my constituents in Wetherby and are instead pushing through such developments as Spofforth Hill with little care for the additional pressures they put on local people.”

WHAT THE DEVELOPERS SAY

Spokesman for Bellway Homes and the landowners Rob Smith spoke at the city plans panel meeting.

He said: “Since this application was submitted the applicant has been engaged in a lengthy process with officers, and that position has been patiently maintained despite dissapointment.

“We are dealing with a designated PAS site. One only has to look at the map of Wetherby and consider an absence of any other potential area.

“The question is, has the time now come to recognise that potential? Spofforth Hill is proposed as the first PAS site set for release. In practice this means that this application will facilitate delivery of housing.

“A grant of planning permission will not only provide demonstrable housing benefits in Wetherby as well as providing a double benefit of providing housing in the city.

“This application promotes development that is sustainable. To approve it would be good, pragmatic, and joined up planning that is in the public interest.

“Any further delay is likely to result, unfortunately, is an appeal for nondetermination.

“Bellway Homes and the landowners both want the best scheme for Wetherby. This application has been before the council for 15 months and was subject to prior discussion for 12 months before that.

“During that time Bellway Homes have responded helpfully and they believe they have now got this application right and quite plainly officers believe that. It is time that this was resolved.”