Transparency call by village campaigners

Villagers at a recent protest against the plans in Harrogate
Villagers at a recent protest against the plans in Harrogate

CAMPAIGNERS HAVE called for greater transparency over a private meeting which could impact on whether a new settlement is built in one of the county’s most affluent areas.

Farmland at Green Hammerton, in an area named by Harrogate’s council as a preferred site for 3,000 new homes, is protected by a covenant which limits the terms of its sale.

Now, as North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) considers varying these terms, there are calls for a planned meeting to be held in the open in the interests of transparency.

Discussions about the future of the land are in the public interest, campaigners claim, as it is ‘imperative’ to any scheme. To amend the covenant could ‘grease the wheels’ for developers, they argue, as well as result in a potential loss of money to the public purse.

“For this discussion to be taking place at such a late stage in the process clearly shows that the ‘Great Hammerton’ site is not deliverable which is a key factor in choosing the right site,” said Chris Chelton, of the Keep Green Hammerton Green action group.

The debate in Harrogate over the siting of a new settlement, to meet the district’s housing shortfall, has caused much controversy in recent months.

Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) revealed in June its preference for historic Green Hammerton over rural Flaxby, but campaigners have long argued there isn’t the infrastructure in place to cope with an influx of new homes.

Any scheme is dependent on developers Commercial Estates Group (CEG) having a viable proposal, they claim, and the covenant under consideration could stand in the way of this.

This covenant, placed on the land when it was sold by NYCC in 2003, means that if it were sold again within 30 years the authority would reap 70 per cent of the proceeds.

NYCC has issued a formal notification of an intention to hold a private meeting to vary the terms of this covenant, sparking fears from campaigners it may be modified to ease the restrictions – at a cost to the public purse.

“If NYCC is determined to attract funds by ignoring the legally binding agreement both parties willingly entered into in 2003, they are doing so at the cost of the loss of two historic villages and against all the sound planning reasons that we have repeatedly offered for this being the wrong site for a town of this size,” said Mr Chelton.

“Both sides should stick to what was agreed when the covenant was signed and not be seeking to vary the deal now.”

The meeting will feature exempt information which is commercially sensitive, an advance notice by NYCC says, and maintaining this outweighs the public interest.

The date for the meeting, a NYCC spokesman added, has now been deferred from September 26 as further discussions are held.

A public report will be published five days before.

Members of the public would be able to ask questions in person before any decision was made, the spokesman said, but said four working days’ notification of the question was needed.

“The matter is being negotiated by officers of the council’s property services team and is subject to commercial confidentiality which may be part of a recommendation to be considered by executive councillors,” the spokesman said. “Even if the executive holds parts of the meeting in private, members of the public will be able to ask questions in person ... providing four working days’ notification of the question is given prior to the meeting.”