The Friends of the Durham Green Belt are grateful for the opportunity to comment on this hybrid application. We do not take issue with the principle that Aykley Heads is a designated strategic employment site, and the following representations are about concerns with the contents and omissions of the planning application as it relates to Plot A South.
But first we must ask about the references in the media to a ’Phase 3’ of development to follow on from the 4,000 jobs in Phases 1 and 2.
The County Council’s nearly finished County Durham Plan is the second effort to have a much-needed up-to-date statutory development plan for County Durham. The first attempt proposed a strategic employment site at Aykley Heads with a claimed potential for creating 6,000 jobs. The site comprised the existing Aykley Heads complex plus a big extension onto the Police Headquarters former playing fields - the so-called plateau area. This area was designated as Area C. However, it is entirely in the Durham City Green Belt, and the Independent Inspector for that first attempt rejected the proposed development of this area. He declared “Whilst I agree that Aykley Heads should be supported as a strategic employment location, on the evidence that is before me, there are no exceptional circumstances to justify removal of Area C from the Green Belt. Area C is an elevated location which is integral to the green setting of the City included in the 2004 Green Belt designation. It continues to fulfil several Green Belt purposes as set out in the NPPF. As submitted therefore, Policy 7 seems to be unsound as it conflicts with requirements in the NPPF.”
The Friends of the Durham Green Belt were delighted with this finding, but a Judicial Review on the procedures followed before and during that Examination in Public led to the Plan and the Inspector’s report being quashed. The County Council had to start again.
Hence the current second effort to have a much-needed up-to-date statutory development plan for County Durham. The County Council decided to not carry forward the earlier version of the Aykley Heads strategic employment site, in our view very wisely. It dropped Area C - the major Green Belt part - and explained in paragraph 4.55 that the revised smaller site could provide about 4,000 jobs.
The Friends of the Durham Green Belt applaud the County Council’s decision to go for a site area that would avoid encountering the controversial issue of a major incursion into the Durham Green Belt. It is no-one’s wish for the Plan to again suffer the fate of the first attempt. But we noticed that there was a broad hint that the County Council still hankered after Area C; paragraph 4.59 of the new County Durham Plan says:
Paragraph 4.59 looked to extend the Aykley Heads strategic employment site into the Green Belt. We support the Examination Inspector’s requirement that paragraph 4.59 in the Submitted County Plan should be removed as part of the set of Main Modifications necessary for the County Durham Plan to be found Sound.
However, we note that there have been County Council public statements and press releases over recent weeks saying that this planning application is for the Aykley Heads scheme’s “first two phases with the potential to create 4,000 jobs.” The obvious implication is that a Phase 3 is envisaged. Unless this Phase 3 is to be literally on top of the office buildings in Phases 1 and 2, the only way to build a Phase 3 is sideways, either southwards onto the St Leonard’s School playing fields or eastwards onto the former Police Headquarters playing fields. A Phase 3 would presumably have a potential of a further 2,000 jobs and thus achieve the boldly promoted figure of 6,000 jobs as still advertised on the large billboards outside County Hall and on the site boards around the new HQ building.
It would be most improper for the County Council on the one hand to have accepted, in order to make sure that this time around the Plan can be found Sound, that the County Plan up to the year 2035 will not contain this proposal and on the other hand at the same time to be having a ‘bottom-drawer’ plan to resurrect the very extension into the green belt it has agreed to drop. NPPF paragraph 136 says: “Strategic policies should establish the need for any changes to Green Belt boundaries, having regard to their intended permanence in the long term, so they can endure beyond the plan period.” This means that the boundary of the Durham City Green Belt should endure beyond 2035, not be changed again in a few years time. The Friends of the Durham Green Belt ask that the County Council gives an explanation for its public comments implying that there are further phases that will accomplish the original target of 6,000 jobs at Aykley Heads.
We now turn to issues with the contents of the planning application as it relates to Plot A South.
Plot A South
This portion of the site is in the Green Belt. We would prefer that its openness is retained and grassed rather than occupied by a 3 storey and a 4 storey office building. If it is developed, then its boundary needs to be reinforced to create readily recognisable and permanent features delineating the boundary of the Green Belt, in accordance with the County Council’s proposed Main Modification 23.
The application’s supporting documents say:
“this area does contribute to preserving the setting and special character of historic towns” and
“under existing policy, given the Proposed Development is a new building in the Green Belt, it is considered to be inappropriate for the purposes of the NPPF”
“the Proposed Development of Plot A South is inappropriate in Green Belt terms under current policy and as such, harm arises to the Green Belt by reason of that inappropriateness. As per the provisions of the NPPF, substantial weight must be attached to this.”
The fact is that the Courts have determined that any loss of openness fails the NPPF’s tests of appropriate development in a green belt. It follows that the proposed developments on Plot A South are contrary to the NPPF. The applicant’s documents go on to say that the proposals do not offend against the other four tests in NPPF and so are acceptable. This is a false argument; the proposal for Site A South is contrary to the NPPF position on green belts.
The documents further argue that this plot is crucial for achieving the benefits of the Aykley Heads strategic employment site: “as this area would act as a gateway for the site, linking it to the city centre and the station its sensitive development would be important to the eventual success of the entire site.” This too is a false argument; Site A North could just as well be the gateway, and in any case the phasing of development at Aykley Heads is that Plot A South would be the last to be developed, some 19 years in the future, so it is absurd to claim that it is important for the eventual success of the entire site; the whole of the rest of the site will have been developed by then.
All in all, no substantive case is made to treat this loss of part of the green belt as justified by very special circumstances. Accordingly, the Friends of the Durham Green Belt object to the Plot A South part of the hybrid application.