A showdown between Oldham’s head of planning and councillors saw a controversial 77-home plan refused despite warnings the local authority is likely to lose an appeal, potentially costing the public purse thousands.
The planning committee had expressed concerns that the proposed new houses, off Hebron Lane in Royton, were of a sub-standard size and residents would ‘turn on each other’ like ‘rats’.
Members also raised issues with building on ‘other protected open land’ (OPOL), and that the development could exacerbate existing traffic problems at the junction with the Heyside B-road.
More than 50 objections had been lodged by members of the public over the plans.
But Stephen Irvine, the head of the planning department, repeatedly warned councillors they did not have a strong enough case to win if taken to appeal by the developer.
He said they were gambling with being hit with around £35k in costs and following a series of appeal losses there was a ‘reputational issue’ for the council.
“Obviously that comes out of public funds which as we know are very scarce because of austerity, he said.
But committee chair, Coun Steven Bashforth, said he ‘disagreed completely’ with officers, and told the chamber he did not believe the plan was acceptable.
As Coun Bashforth moved that they refuse the application against officers’ recommendations, head of planning Mr Irvine put his head in his hands.
“I don’t think that we want to be building quality homes next to heavy industry, with substandard housing on it, on OPOL land with difficult access,” Coun Bashforth said.
“In all the years I’ve been on the planning committee I don’t think anyone could ever call me reckless.
“And I firmly believe I can defend those reasons and I firmly believe that even if I lose they will be seen as not being unreasonable concerns.”
He added: “We do have a very, very steep housing target to meet – it’s a mountain.
“And I honestly don’t know how we or other councils are going to get there at all – but that doesn’t mean that we sacrifice everything just to chase those targets.”
The site forms part of a wider allocation under the draft Greater Manchester spatial framework (GMSF) called Broadbent Moss which is currently being consulted on.
Of the 77 homes proposed, 15 would have been affordable, and slightly less than half a hectare of public open space would have been provided.
Matthew Taylor, planning officer, said: “Importantly, due to the GMSF the council needs to significantly boost its housing supply.
“There is no doubt additional housing arising from this scheme would have significant benefits in the area, these include public benefits, economic benefits and environmental benefits.”
Hebron Street resident Stephen Macauley spoke against the plans, arguing they would increase road hazards, with ‘at least’ seven accidents recorded around the site since 2014.
“This shows the level of traffic, combined with two blind bends, made the road inherently dangerous and hazardous especially when entering and exiting Hebron Street,” he said.
“Adding a substantial amount of traffic will seriously worsen an already difficult situation.”
Royton South ward Coun Amanda Chadderton told the committee they needed to ensure that new homes were not built at ‘any cost, anywhere and at any standard’.
“The officer’s report describes this development as high quality, she said.
“How can this be the case when they do not meet the national minimum space standards and are directly next to a large heavy industrial site in a location where competition for school places and doctors is already intense?
“Especially when we are giving up OPOL land to do so.
“I feel that permitting a new development of some 77 houses with the only access down narrow streets from a busy and poorly sighted junction with a record of serious accidents would not ensure appropriate highway safety, or safety of pedestrians and road users.”
Marc Hourigan, the agent on behalf of the applicant, Grasscroft Homes and Property, told members that the local highway network would ‘operate safely’ if the development was approved.
He added: “You can rest assured that much needed new homes will be delivered here, they will be delivered quickly, they will assist the council in addressing the challenging housing land supply it faces.”
But Coun Barbara Brownridge said she also shared the concerns over substandard housing, on which there is currently no council policy, but added it should be a ‘moral obligation’.
“We know what happens to rats when they’re put in houses that are too small, they all start turning on each other – I don’t see why people should be any different,” she said.
Lib Dem Coun Dave Murphy told the meeting he felt he was being ‘blackmailed’ to approve the application because of the housing demand, and targets set by government.
Vice chair, Stephen Hewitt, added: “We also need to create a reputation that we want quality houses in Oldham, we don’t want shoe boxes, we want houses that people can live in and they can bring up a family.”
Mr Irvine called on members to reconsider, arguing they had ‘ignored over and over again the advice of experts’, to the council’s cost.
“Members, whether we like it or not, as a council we have an issue that we are not granting planning permissions,” he said.
“We have recently been turning an awful lot of major applications.
“That clearly has a reputational issue for the council and clearly we need to think about that we do need to meet our housing needs for all the benefits that brings.
“We do not have enough brownfield land. I’m at a loss if we are not building on OPOL land, it isn’t green belt, where we are going to go.”
However a majority of councillors voted to reject the application.
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