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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

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Debate over future of green belt exposes deep divisions

THINK of Tynedale and you think of the countryside, wildlife and tranquility.

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Residents turned out in force to campaign against plans to build on Ponteland’s green belt.

Some, however, fear the area’s unique character could be placed under threat as more and more developers eye up its green belt land for housing.

In Hexham, residents face potential development at Shaws Farm, off West Road, while residents of the tiny hamlet of New Ridley have petitioned against a 22-home scheme.

Ponteland, meanwhile, looks set to bear the brunt of the recent upsurge in interest, with proposals coming forward for 280 homes at Birney Hill and a further 500 at Clickemin Farm, either side of the A695.

Residents, though, have proved they’re no pushover, organising everything from protests to an eye-catching signpost campaign to signal their opposition.

“Ponteland is a unique settlement – it’s neither a village nor a town – and the surrounding green belt has been a designated area for over 30 years,” said Alma Dunigan, chairman of the recently-established Ponteland Green Belt Group.

“If it’s concreted over, that is it – it’s gone forever.

“Developers choose green belt land as their favoured option due to the low costs in preparation, the weaknesses in the planning policies of Northumberland County and the radical change to national planning policy.

“We must not lose sight of why developers are interested in building hundreds of houses here and now: for profit.”

The developers, however, tell a different story, most pointing to an apparent housing shortfall in Northumberland, particularly for first-time buyers.

The county is expected to make provision for 18,000 to 19,000 new homes by 2030, 7,000 of which are to be built in the south-west.

Lugano Group, which hopes to build at Birney Hill, Ponteland, has also pointed out that green belt is not a permanent feature, but can be amended if there is a need to do so.

The company says this has already happened on several occasions in Ponteland, between 1981 and 2003, when Fairney Edge, Eland Haugh and Medburn were all removed from the designation.

“The same issues apply today,” a spokesman said.

“Lugano has undertaken several years of research, working with professional organisations and Northumberland County Council.

“The evidence from this detailed work concludes that there are no other credible alternatives but to release green belt for development.”

The company, in fact, goes as far as to say the potential benefits of the Birney Hill scheme “by far outweigh green concerns”.

“Apart from the fact that few other opportunities exist to provide housing for our children and grandchildren, Birney Hill would create 900 job opportunities over the next five to ten years and bring a superbly-designed ‘green’ housing scheme to the area,” the spokesman said.

“A new community trust will have access to circa £9m to work with the local community to deliver numerous immeasurable benefits.

“It will lead the way in the UK for cost-saving, energy-efficient housing set in a beautiful, biodiverse landscape.

“The development would create new wildlife corridors as habitats for protected species and protect key views and landscapes, as well as enhancing landscape quality.”

The Banks Group takes a similar view of its development; having examined all options available, it has chosen the most appropriate location and is taking a “benefits-driven approach” to its Clickemin scheme.

Environment and community director Mark Dowdall said: “As a North-East-based, family-owned business, we fully understand the character of the area and appreciate the matters that need to be addressed as part of our Ponteland proposals, but we also firmly believe that everyone has a right to the opportunity to live in the place that they wish to be and that our plans would provide just such an opportunity in this sought-after area.”

Although the green belt may have hit the local headlines in recent months more than ever before, the concept itself dates back to the 1940s, when it was introduced to control urban sprawl.

Essentially, the designation refers to a ring of countryside where urbanisation will be resisted for the foreseeable future, maintaining an area where agriculture, forestry and outdoor leisure are prioritised.

According to a Government planning policy guidance note, there should be a general presumption against building there unless in exceptional circumstances where the benefits of green belt development outweigh the harm.

The National Planning Policy Framework would seem to reinforce this protection, making further references to using previously-developed land effectively and ensuring large-scale developments take the character of the area into account.

However, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, among others, fears the Government has sent mixed signals.

The document, it argues, also contains several pro-development polices, making reference to the “significant weight” to be placed on economic growth, to which planning controls such as green belt are an impediment.

Councils are likewise coming under pressure from government planning inspectors because of housing land targets, the CPRE believes.

In Northumberland, the situation gets even trickier.

In 2009, when six district councils were merged into a unitary authority, they brought separate planning policies with them – in Hexham’s case, Tynedale Council’s, while Castle Morpeth Borough Council’s still applies to Ponteland.

Many, therefore, believe developers are now exploiting a window of opportunity as Northumberland County Council sets about formulating its overarching core strategy, setting out the vision for the county over the next 15 years.

As the second round of consultation on the proposals begins, Hexham MP Guy Opperman is calling for swift action when it comes to cementing green belt policy.

Whatever happens, however, the council has offered assurances it is listening.

A spokesman said: “There could be circumstances where, if needs could not be met over the plan period without incursions into the green belt, there may be a case for looking at boundary alterations.

“However, this could only be done in exceptional circumstances and would need to be strongly justified in terms of the land supply elsewhere.

“As with other proposals, the council will take people’s views into account.

“We will listen to suggestions made, whether these be to keep the green belt the same or alter its boundaries.”

Any changes, the spokesman added, would need to be approved by the Government.

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