An appeal hearing is currently taking place for a refused outline application for around 125 homes on Willowburn Trading Estate.
The key issue is that the site is designated as employment land and not for residential development in the Alnwick and Denwick Neighbourhood Plan.
Trying to overturn the decision, claiming the neighbourhood plan is already out of date, are the applicants – Northern Commercial Properties, whose majority shareholder is Lord James Percy, and the Harris & Sheldon Group.
The refusal is being defended by Northumberland County Council and Alnwick Town Council, which was responsible for overseeing the development of the neighbourhood plan.
Yesterday, representatives of businesses on the industrial estate were given a chance to share their views.
Colin Potts, from agricultural machinery business Rickerby Ltd, said that the company has invested £2million in its base, employs 20 people and runs a successful apprenticeship programme, taking on two to three young people each year.
He explained that for six months a year, the site operates 24/7 and, by its very nature, is noisy and smelly.
Mr Potts said: “We don’t want to move from our home where we have been for 31 years. We don’t want to be next to a housing estate which is going to complain every week about the noise and smells that agricultural engineering brings.”
Mick Davison, who runs The Framing Department from Ventex House on the estate, told the inquiry that he has had four moves since he started the business in 1996, but ‘the Willowburn estate has proved to be an excellent position for me’.
“There are a lot of people who want this kind of small unit,” he added.
This was echoed by Ryan Kent, whose Ultimate Finish business is another tenant of Ventex House and who said that he was previously looking for premises in Alnwick for some time, but there was nothing like this in the town price-wise.
He too has invested in his base, but is reluctant to spend more given the uncertainty over its future, which has also prevented him from taking on staff as he doesn’t want to employ people only to have to let them go.
Philip Angier, who runs Local Living that has a storage unit on the estate and who was also a member of the neighbourhood plan steering group, added: “There’s a paucity of small business units in Alnwick.”
Their contributions were followed by further evidence from Peter Biggers, who was the planning consultant for the neighbourhood plan.
Sasha White QC, for the applicants, suggested that opposing the county council’s proposed deallocation of the trading estate as employment land was ‘the tail wagging the dog’, as the law requires neighbourhood plans to fit with the strategic policies of the Local Plan – in this case, the county council’s.
When Mr Biggers pointed out that the county council was one of the applicants for the housing bid at that time (it later withdrew), Mr White said the implication that the council policy was based on it being an applicant was a ‘most extraordinary allegation’.
But Mr Biggers said: “I’m saying there was a material change in the county council’s view in a very short space of time (from supporting the draft policy for employment land to wanting to deallocate the site).
“I don’t want words put in my mouth – I’m concerned about the lack of evidence for supporting the policy and then proposing deallocation a year later.”
Mr White also said that the neighbourhood plan contained a ‘cack-handed attempt’ to predict the employment land needed and it was ‘misguided’ as much of the current employment land listed was for retail use.
But Mr Biggers pointed out that retail is still employment use, adding that whatever it was, it had been supported by the people of Alnwick.
The housing scheme was refused unanimously by Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee last July.
The proposal was recommended for approval at the previous month’s meeting, but was deferred for a site visit.
Between the two meetings, the Alnwick and Denwick Neighbourhood Plan, which does not allow residential development on this site as it is designated as employment land, passed referendum and led officers to recommend refusal at the July meeting.
The final decision will be made by Planning Inspector Nick Palmer following this inquiry, which started on Tuesday and is expected to conclude next Wednesday.
Since the appeal was lodged, a second outline bid – this time for up to 100 homes with the county council-owned land removed from the proposed site – was submitted before it too was unanimously refused last month.
Last week, it was revealed that world-famous fishing brand Hardy and Greys, now owned by Pure Fishing, could move away from its current home on the Willowburn Trading Estate to a new base at Cawledge, next to the Hog’s Head Inn.
By Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service