PARISH councillors have been accused of giving a ‘hostile’ response to residents who are objecting to a cattle farm proposed near their seaside homes.
At a special meeting held last Wednesday night, Craster Parish Council agreed – in private – to endorse the plans to turn a former arable farm at Dunstan Steads, between Embleton and Craster, into a rearing unit for 200 calves, including a steel-framed livestock building, effluent tank and a caravan.
It followed presentations by the applicant, Berwickshire farmer Ivor Gaston, and local objectors, who were each given 10 minutes to outline their cases.
The parish also agreed with comments made by the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty partnership, which said the planned use of the 408-acre farm ‘has the potential to create adverse effects on the AONB and its landscape character, visual amenity, biodiversity and recreational opportunities’.
While not opposed to a change of use of the land, the partnership says it would prefer a comprehensive farm development plan to be put forward for examination, rather than the ‘piecemeal approach adopted to date’.
But local hotelier Michael Townsend, who spoke at the meeting, said the councillors’ attitude was ‘hostile’ towards the concerns he raised, while at the same time giving Mr Gaston ‘an easy run’, despite a 400-name petition and more than 40 letters of objection against the development. He also questioned the need for the council to discuss the matter behind closed doors, rather than in public.
“The whole meeting smacked of concealment,” said Mr Townsend, who runs the Dunstanburgh Castle Hotel in Embleton. “Every question that they asked Mr Gaston, they accepted the first answer he gave without any further questions.
“When it came to my turn, it was a very different tone. It was unbelievable. I was actually accused of trespassing to get a photograph of the site, even though it was taken from a friend’s garden. The whole experience was hostile.
“After the presentations and questions, the council said it would discuss the matter in private and everyone would be notified of the decision by email. It seems to me that they wanted to deflect any criticism because they had made their minds up before the meeting even took place.”
Robert Cornall, who lives at Dunstan Steads, objected to the development but did not attend the meeting.
“It has been a strange process,” he said. “The parish has supported the views held by the AONB, which I think gives quite good reasons for refusal, yet raised no objection. They have been quite naive.
“To take the decision behind closed doors was an odd one.”
But parish councillor Bryn Owen said: “We believe that we gave both parties a fair chance to present their points and they way we conducted the meeting was in accordance with our standing orders.
“There was no hostilty towards anyone and I can assure you that I certainly had not made my mind up before the meeting and neither had any other parish councillor. I asked Mr Townsend where his photo had been taken from because guidelines state that any pictures used as reference should be taken from public land. I knew it was a private garden.”
Coun Owen said most of the names on the petition were people who lived outside the area, while some objectors who wrote letters believed the operation would involve calves being kept in the dark, akin to a veal farm, which he said was a ‘total misrepresentation’.
He said: “If we had relied solely on what Mr Townsend said, we would have passed it will no problem because he made such a poor presentation. We spent a full day reading letters, some of which had been delivered to councillors individually.”
Asked why the discussions between councillors had been held in private, he added: “The objectors interfered with the meeting – if somebody shouts out ‘that’s rubbish’ while someone else is speaking, that makes things difficult.”
Coun Owen added: “Most of the people on the parish council have lived in the area all their lives. They know how important farming is and the last thing they want to see is this place become an agricultural wasteland.”
The parish council has asked for the caravan to be re-sited to the west side of the road and that an immediate programme of screening be carried out, as a ‘gesture of goodwill’.
It also asked for confirmation that county highways had not changed its view of no objection since the previous application.
A statement issued after the meeting read: “Subject to the adoption of the AONB proposals and the above three parish council additions, the parish council would not object to the application.”
The application will now go before a county council planning committee.