The developer behind controversial housing plans in Northumberland has made serious allegations about ‘unlawful’ efforts by the leader of the council and others to prevent the scheme from going ahead.
But Peter Jackson, also leader of Northumberland Conservatives, said Lugano Developments is resorting to ‘dirty tricks’ and ‘petty, personal attacks’ in ‘desperation’ as it tries to ensure a decision in its favour for its Dissington Garden Village project.
The application, for 2,000 homes plus employment, commercial, agricultural and leisure space and facilities near Ponteland, was given a ‘minded to approve’ sign-off by Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee in March last year, but some conditions and obligations have yet to be agreed.
On Thursday, the council told Lugano that the application would be going back before the committee for a decision next month, something the Conservative administration said would happen in the aftermath of withdrawing the core strategy – a key planning document – last summer.
Then, late on Friday afternoon, an eight-page letter, from Lugano’s executive chairman Richard Robson and director Allan Rankin, was sent to all county councillors.
It says that the company has been ‘preparing witness statements and a full evidence base for use should it prove necessary to seek redress through the courts. We trust that such action will not prove necessary’.
The letter also says that the allegations against Coun Jackson, who is described as ‘not fit for public office’, as well as other councillors and senior officers, require ‘a full, third-party, independent inquiry’, but that Lugano intends to continue working with the council on the application, so long as those mentioned have no involvement.
For its part, the county council said that it is ‘appalled and quite frankly astounded’ that Lugano has put these allegations into a letter to all councillors and that it is seeking legal advice on ‘the many inappropriate, untrue and defamatory statements’.
Among the issues mentioned in the letter is the withdrawal of the core strategy in July last year – something which opposition councillors have raised repeated concerns about ever since, as the county will not have a planning framework in place until 2020.
Also referred to is the previously-reported claim, made in an anonymous letter, that Coun Jackson tried to force a senior planning officer, who has now left the authority, to turn down the application. The council previously said that an independent investigation ‘concluded that there was no case to answer and the allegations were wholly unfounded’.
Coun Jackson said that the allegations in the letter are based on ‘tittle-tattle’, adding that he is not and never will be on the strategic planning committee and has every right as a councillor representing a Ponteland ward to express concerns about the application.
He added: “It’s been a long-drawn-out issue and when it goes to planning committee in due course, I hope that will be the end of the matter.”
Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate resources, said: “On Thursday, the council informed Lugano that its application will go before the strategic planning committee and the next day it launched this attack.
“This is no more than a pathetic attempt by a big developer to apply pressure and influence a planning decision – it has shown in the past that it is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get its way.
“Its personal attacks on officers and members have no place in the proper planning process.“
But Coun Grant Davey, leader of the Labour group, said: “Lugano’s allegations are serious and are backed up with evidence. Coun Jackson may disregard them as ‘tittle-tattle’, but he does not address the substantive content of the allegations.
“The call for an independent, third-party investigation into actions at this council has also been made by two local MPs, myself as Labour group leader and by former members of the authority.
“There is no confidence that the authority can address the allegations of bullying and corruption coupled with the politicisation of the planning process by Northumberland Conservatives.
“A spotlight needs to be shone on the decisions since last May and they need to be addressed not dismissed. The Lugano allegations may turn out to be the tip of a very shocking iceberg.”
A Northumberland County Council spokesman said: “We are appalled and quite frankly astounded that the applicant (Lugano Developments) has chosen to make public such serious allegations in an open letter.
“This matter relates to a live planning application and the applicant was advised on May 10 that its application regarding Dissington Garden Village would be coming back to the council’s strategic planning committee on June 19.
“They had been advised that the withdrawal of the draft Northumberland Local Plan – Core Strategy was clearly a material change in circumstance which requires that their application is now reconsidered.
“The development in question is for 2,000 properties to be built on green-belt land within the county. The council is seeking to bring this matter to a conclusion and therefore this will be considered in line with the established and statutory planning processes in due course.
“The council can confirm that the process which it is following is lawful and reasonable, and it has been fully open with the applicant regarding all aspects of this.
“For clarity, Coun Jackson does not sit on the planning committee and is well within his right in his role as a local councillor to reflect any concerns or views of his constituents.
“Finally, the allegations are very serious in nature and the council believes that it would be inappropriate at this time to address publicly the many inappropriate, untrue and defamatory statements which are contained within the letter. The council is taking legal advice in this regard.”
By Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service