Victory for neighbourhood plan as homes appeal dismissed

Willowburn Trading Estate in Alnwick.
Willowburn Trading Estate in Alnwick.

An appeal by developers has failed after a planning inspector upheld the refusal of new homes on an Alnwick industrial estate.

It represents a clear victory for the town’s neighbourhood plan, whose policies formed the reason for turning down the properties in the first place.

A public inquiry took place in July for the rejected outline application for around 125 homes on Willowburn Trading Estate.

The key issue was 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 were the applicants – Northern Commercial Properties, whose majority shareholder is Lord James Percy, brother of the Duke of Northumberland, and the Harris & Sheldon Group, the landlord of Hardy and Greys owner Pure Fishing.

The refusal was defended by Northumberland County Council, which was originally an applicant before withdrawing, and Alnwick Town Council, which was responsible for overseeing the development of the neighbourhood plan.

In his decision to dismiss the appeal, which was published today, planning inspector Nick Palmer said: “The conflict with the development plan would however be significant in terms of the importance of policy E3 to employment provision. This conflict carries substantial weight as breaching the policy would undermine confidence in the plan-led system.

“In terms of actual harm, a significant proportion of the trading estate would be lost and employment uses on the remaining areas of the estate may be prejudiced. This harm attracts very significant weight because the effect on local employment would be permanent.

“I conclude that the substantial and very significant weights arising from the adverse impacts of allowing the proposed housing development, including the harm to the supply of employment land, would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of the scheme.”

Alnwick town and county councillor, Gordon Castle, said: “This excellent news means that the neighbourhood plans carry all the weight we expected them to and that four years of work was not wasted. The inspector specifically states that policy E3 carried the day, and so it should.

“I hope this sees off the doubters and doom-mongers – unlike the Druridge Bay appeal, it didn’t even need political intervention. So much for the false claims that the withdrawn core strategy has weakened neighbourhood plans – quite the opposite.”

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, Alnwick’s neighbourhood plan passed referendum and led officers to recommend refusal at the July meeting.

After 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 in June.

On the opening day of the inquiry, Sasha White QC, for the applicants, said that the neighbourhood plan is out of date as it relies on assumptions of the evidence in the Northumberland-wide core strategy, which was withdrawn by the county council’s new Conservative administration last July.

The following day, some of the tenants of the industrial estate were given a chance to share their views, highlighting their objections to losing what they see as a great place to do business.

Among other matters discussed were employment land in Alnwick and the viability of the Willowburn estate. Martin Lytollis, from Newcastle-based commercial property consultants Lambert Smith Hampton, who provided evidence for the appellants, said that the loss of the estate ‘wouldn’t cause any harm because of the more-than-ample number of employment sites to the east of the A1’.

The hearing had ended slightly prematurely when the Government published the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – the overarching rulebook for planning. This was the first update since its introduction in 2012 and implemented around 85 reforms. This led to the inquiry being concluded in writing, with position statements on any relevant changes in the NPPF followed by parties’ closing statements.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service