Anger as controversial housing plan for retirement village site deferred without decision being made

Frustrated members of the public let fly after a controversial housing planning application was deferred after being under consideration for more than three hours.

There were cries of “absolutely disgusting”, “fudge” and “this is a democracy” as local residents trooped out of a Stockton Council meeting which heard plans for 215 new homes at Mount Leven Farm, off Leven Bank, Yarm.

A majority of councillors had rejected the proposed development on the site of a previously approved retirement village due to a number of concerns, including the highway impact and school places provision. It was then that head of legal services Julie Butcher stepped in taking members through each of the grounds for rejection, stating “none of them in my legal opinion are justifiable reasons”.

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Ms Butcher subsequently invoked a protocol put in place previously which was intended to guard against costly legal challenges having to be defended by the local authority. This meant the application by Mandale Homes and the outcome will be subject to further consideration by council chiefs before being brought back to the committee.

The retirement village was originally recommended for refusal back in 2013 before being granted outline planning permission by councillors after a revised application was lodged. It was to contain 332 retirement homes, a 68 bed nursing home and associated community facilities, including a tennis court, bowling green, community hall and convenience store.

© Elder Lester McGregor Architects The proposed site layout for 215 new homes at Mount Leven Farm, Leven Bank Road, Yarm

Meanwhile, an application for the setting out of public access in an area on the site to be designated as a ‘country park’ was approved in 2018.

The meeting heard the retirement village was being constructed on a “piecemeal” basis – having been beset by delays – and a stipulation that the housing only be available to over 55s had been subsequently dropped as “unworkable”.

The current application proposes 180 houses and 35 bungalows – all deemed to be affordable ‘market’ housing addressing the needs of first-time buyers, families and those seeking to downsize – and has raised more than 100 objections, including one from Yarm Town Council, along with 23 letters of support to the council.

Officers had recommended approval on the basis that the principle of development on the site was already established. They also said while there was a change in the “extent of built form”, there were no technical reasons why the proposed scheme was unacceptable in planning terms and would justify refusal.

But about a dozen local residents and objectors lined up to speak against the housing development, which was described as “materially different” to the previously approved retirement village. Councillors were also urged to take into account “human behaviour, not a technical manual” in making their decision.

Criticisms included a lack of sustainable footpaths and cycle linkages into the existing network, while a roundabout previously built to serve the retirement village was also described as inadequate, despite council officers declaring that there was no evidence to demonstrate it was operating unsafely.

Doreen Smith, who lives nearby on Leven Bank, said: “The current roundabout is an accident waiting to happen. I have witnessed several near misses as have family and friends.” She said with the new proposal the likelihood of accidents could only increase, adding: “I have never felt so stressed and anxious.”

Paul Mosely asked how traffic would exit the development safely and, along with others, described vehicles “straightlining” and driving fast over the existing roundabout using an overrun area. He said: “It will put the lives of future residents at risk.”

Mr Mosely said the application would have an unacceptable impact on highway safety. Another resident living nearby, Michael Razzle, a chartered surveyor, said a sensible option might be for the council to encourage the completion of the retirement village as originally planned.

Others raised environmental concerns and asked “where the green wedge had gone” between Ingleby Barwick and Yarm. Resident Geoff Mundy claimed the new housing posed a flood risk because of a proposed SUDs pond design. And Christine Mundy said the recommendation to approve the plans was “based on ifs and buts”.

The development was also described as not sustainable with the nearest small grocery shop being a 20 minute walk away and no new facilities being provided.

Jeremy Good, a planning agent representing the applicant, said the over 55 stipulation, which had now been removed, had proved unworkable to a number of developers looking at the site previously. He said the land was allocated in the council’s Local Plan for housing and was not green wedge or green belt.

Mr Good said the proposed homes were 100% accessible and adaptable in accordance with new building regulations standards, double what the plan required. He said: “The previous scheme made no such commitments to these standards.

“The proposal seeks to deliver on the aspiration of housing to meet the needs of an ageing population.”

Mr Good described how remaining objections came from neighbours and local interest groups, and largely focused on matters of principle and highway impact. He said: “The principle has been long established through the adoption of the site in the Local Plan.

“It is acknowledged that the scheme is a deviation from the original proposals, which may concern members, however it is a scheme that stays true to many of the design principles originally endorsed by the council.”

‘Consistent at being inconsistent’

Councillor Steve Walmsley said he was “astonished” when the retirement village was first approved in 2013 against officers’ original recommendations. Cllr Walmsley railed against various developments previously approved in the borough “one after the other”, labelling the council’s planning committee as being “consistent at being inconsistent”.

He said: “We are building a country park where there is already a natural country park. They are doing something similar in Middlesbrough with Mandale Meadow, they are going to put a road through it.

“It just doesn’t make sense, it is nonsense.”

Cllr Walmsley said officers’ approach to highways issues were based on a formula and designed to confuse and “chloroform” concerns. He said: “There have been more departures while I have been sat on this committee than there are trains from King’s Cross.

“We have got a real serious problem with traffic – you are going on about something here which is going to be safe on Leven Road, which is a dangerous road anyway.

“With all the development that is going on at Middlesbrough you can see a time in the future when Low Lane is going to have to be widened because we have just gone daft with all this.”

Cllr Walmsley added: “There comes a point where you have to say we have gone too far here, it is absolute nonsense. Some of the stuff in these papers, they expect intelligent people to fall for it and we hide behind policy this and policy that.

“I would suggest we throw it up and get back to the drawing board with something sensible.”

Councillor Dan Fagan said the application was incomplete and there were “ten pages of information about information we don’t have, which is outstanding on the development”. He said last year it had been revealed in an assessment that there was over provision in the council’s Local Plan in terms of the number of new homes being delivered in the borough.

This over provision by 417 homes was also cited by Stockton South MP Matt Vickers in a written objection. Mr Vickers wrote: “It is now time to review the plan, particularly in terms of planned dwelling numbers, and assess how this over provision and the likelihood of it increasing dramatically will further impact on our towns and villages.

“Quite simply this over provision would negate the need to grant this particular application permission and that of several other developments in the surrounding area, and the needs of the Local Plan would still be met.”

The MP added: “Yarm and Kirklevington residents are sick and tired of highlighting to Stockton Borough Council that the area is already over-saturated with housing development.

“Yarm High Street at most times of the day is heavily congested with traffic causing unnecessary pollution. It gets worse at peak times, with log jams backing up The Spital/Thirsk Road as far as Leven Road.”

Councillor Tony Riordan said he visited the site at the request of a local resident to look at the roundabout many were unhappy with. He said: “I turned up half an hour ealy and watched the traffic for about half an hour – the roundabout design invites motorists to behave incorrectly, there is no adequate deflection on the roundabout.

“The majority of drivers are not using it as a roundabout; they are just generally carrying across in a straight line, not braking.”

© Google The roundabout leading to the intended retirement village development at Mount Leven Farm, Leven Bank Road, Yarm

Cllr Riordan said it was human nature that people would take the quickest route possible and would not use Busby Way, where a new footpath link has been proposed, and would instead access the main A1044 road connecting Yarm and Middlesbrough via the criticised roundabout junction.

He said: “Pedestrians and cyclists are going to go onto this road to get to their route as quickly as possible – you are inviting them into a dangerous situation. I have great concerns.”

Councillor Sylvia Walmsley said the retirement village was “totally different to what we have here” and predicted there would be a significant increase in traffic caused by those who would occupy the new homes.

Councillor Eileen Johnson said she felt “misled”, based on the development that was originally promised, but was struggling to find a single planning reason to reject the plans. She also warned that even if they were denied she could “guarantee” it would be overturned by the planning inspector.

Councillor Lynn Hall said she welcomed accessible adaptable homes, especially bungalows, but said the plans represented a “step change”, in particular because of removing the over 55 stipulation. She described local infrastructure being “stretched to breaking point” and suggested the application be deferred for a site visit to the roundabout, which she described as a “bit of a problem”.

Cllr Riordan seconded this, although the motion was unsuccessful. Cllr Hall said: “We have to reassure ourselves that this is a sound plan, and at the moment there are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes.”

Councillors gave various reasons for rejecting the application, including no detail or justification provided by the council in its assessment of how children moving to the estate could be accommodated in local schools. The new development was also not providing housing for an ageing population and failing to enhance green infrastructure.

Cllr Riordan said the development should be rejected on highways grounds, citing the “dangerous” junction and roundabout, while Cllr Steve Walmsley said there would be a change in character and appearance with one storey properties being replaced by two storey properties.

Support for the development received by the council described the housing scheme as a “fantastic development”, creating much needed jobs and investment, while the proposed mix of properties would “help the old and young live together”.

A report said the impact on the overall highway network had been assessed and journey times could increase for those using Leven Road by a maximum of 25 seconds. However this was not considered to be a severe impact.

It said the capacity of the existing roundabout/junction approved and constructed as part of the retirement village plans had been assessed and was considered to be acceptable. The report said: “There have been four recorded accidents within the last five years and given the nature of the accidents there is no evidence to demonstrate that the junction is currently operating unsafely and it is considered suitable to serve the proposed development.”

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