The Northumberland Estates’ proposals for almost 100 homes on the plot had been recommended for approval at the Tuesday, August 4, meeting of Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee.
An initial motion to refuse the application – based on the conflict with the Alnwick and Denwick Neighbourhood Plan (ADNP) – was voted down by 11 votes to two, before approval was passed by the same margin. A separate listed building consent in relation to the grade II-listed school buildings was unanimously supported.
The scheme will feature the conversion of the former school into 27 apartments plus the construction of 22 houses and bungalows, and a two-storey block of 49 retirement flats at the other end of the site, with a landscaped open area in the middle.
The old school buildings would feature nine one-bedroom, 14 two-bedroom and four three-bedroom apartments, while the specialist elderly living accommodation would consist of 23 one-bedroom and 26 two-bedroom flats. The adjacent housing would feature five two-bedroom bungalows and 17 two-bedroom homes.
More than 60 objections had been lodged, including from Alnwick Town Council, in large part because the ADNP designates the southern half of the site as ‘local green space’, where ‘development will not be permitted other than in very special circumstances’.
In his report, the planning officer concluded that there are very special circumstances in this case, due to the proposals, described as a ‘a holistically master-planned scheme’, allowing the long-term use of the grade II-listed school buildings, the full replacement of the playing fields elsewhere in Alnwick, the provision of flats for the elderly and affordable homes, and part of the site becoming open space, given that it is not accessible at the moment.
The Duke’s School Neighbourhood Residents Association (DSNRA), which was set up to oppose the plans after they were first unveiled in August 2018, had said that approving the plans would ‘be setting a dangerous precedent’ and ‘would render all neighbourhood plans made in Northumberland totally meaningless’.
In its written submission to the virtual meeting – which has replaced the usual public-speaking slots – it rebutted all five of the very special circumstances, stating that they could be achieved with a smaller, more sensitive development on the site that was in line with the ADNP.
Cllr Martin Swinbank, presenting Alnwick Town Council’s objection, pointed out that the southern part of the site had never been put forward for housing during the development of the ADNP, despite the Estates playing a major role in that process.
He added that the company, which represents the Duke of Northumberland’s business interests, later attempted to have this area removed from the ‘local green space’ designation, but this was rejected by the planning inspector during the plan’s examination.
Summarising the issues and the recommendation, however, the county council’s director of planning, Rob Murfin, said that while you cannot say this proposal exactly fits with the ADNP, the development is ‘in general conformity’, bearing in mind it has had to address certain issues.
“It meets the aspirations of the community, albeit in a different way,” he added.
Presenting the unsuccessful refusal motion, Cllr Jeff Reid said: “I think we have to stick with what’s agreed in the neighbourhood plan.”
He was supported by Cllr Malcolm Robinson, with Cllr Reid later adding that the green space is a ‘red herring’, as it will be seen as belonging to those who live in the houses and there will be ‘all sorts of nimbyism’.
“This is a very difficult application and this is one of the prime sites in Alnwick,” Cllr Trevor Thorne said, before suggesting that it does meet some of the intentions of the ADNP through securing the listed building, providing an area of public green space, and providing a good housing mix.
“This application has been worked on for an awful long time behind the scenes by planning officers,” said the chairman, Cllr Colin Horncastle. “They must think they have got the best outcome possible for this site.”
Cllr Ian Swithenbank added: “This is a rare opportunity that achieves one of the intentions of the neighbourhood plan (the green space), but simply in a way those creating the plan didn’t envisage.”
Approval is subject to the completion of a section 106 legal agreement to secure a £306,000 education contribution (£162,000 primary and £144,000 secondary), £40,200 to support the expansion of the town’s GP surgeries, 11 affordable homes (six for rent – including all five bungalows – and five for sale at discount market value), a coastal mitigation contribution of £58,800, and 2.74 hectares of replacement playing fields, for rugby and football pitches, on farmland next to the Alnwick Juniors pitches at Greensfield.
At the meeting, it was announced that the green space in the middle of the site will also be part of the s.106 agreement to secure it for public use in perpetuity.
Councillors also agreed to add a requirement for children’s play-area provision either on site or through an off-site contribution and an extra condition to ensure the public protection concerns in relation to gas measures were tackled.