A five-year battle to stop travellers living on a green belt site on the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard has been unsuccessful.
Central Beds Council has fought tooth and nail to block the development at Mile Tree Road on the edge of Heath and Reach, which it believes will set a dangerous precedent.
But following a public inquiry earlier this year, Government inspector Simon Hand has just published his “finally balanced” verdict and has ruled in the travellers’ favour due to their personal circumstances which he said outweighed the need to preserve the green belt.
Today CBC’s Jason Longhurst, Director of Regeneration, at Central Beds Council told the LBO: “The council is very concerned about the Inspector’s decision having regard to the latest Government guidance, which places an additional emphasis on protecting the Green Belt and, in that context, we are fully considering the legal implications of the decision. The injunction on the site remains in place.”
When the owner of the land, a traveller called Michael Kieley, first applied for retrospective planning permission for six pitches and hardstandings it was rejected.
The council spent £10,000 on legal costs, £100,000 on security to prevent occupation of the land, plus a further £10,000 re-instating the site.
After being debated at a previous inquiry, and in the High Court, the matter reverted to a new public inquiry which took place in April and September.
In his published verdict, Mr Hand said the site was now better screened and less development was proposed (five pitches instead of six) “therefore the impact on the countryside and the openness of the green belt is reduced”.
The council had argued that new pitches could be more easily accommodated in the north of the district without using green belt.
Mr Hand said: “However, the north of the Borough is some way from the south, and I agree with the appellant’s argument that it would be unreasonable to not provide any pitches in the southern half of the Borough, where there is clearly a considerable gypsy population, as was accepted by the council at the inquiry.
“The evidence I heard was that this was the area where the appellant and the Sweeney family resort to when possible as they have family here, so that any base would need to be in the southern area of the district, or across the border, but they argue anywhere would inevitably be in the green belt. I also heard that several of the sites in the now withdrawn draft local plan were in the green belt.
“I consider therefore that there is likely to be some pitch provision in the green belt through the local plan process.”
Mr Hand accepted the development as inappropriate in the green belt and that there would be a sterilization of some of the silica sand resource.
But he said: “On the other hand I consider, tentatively, that the new GTAA [CBC’s pending Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment], is likely to underestimate the number of gypsy pitches required, but even so, the council cannot at the moment demonstrate a five-year supply of pitches. There are also no alternative sites available.
“I have also found there is likely to be some future provision of pitches in the green belt. I attach weight to all these matters and find although the outcome is finely balanced, nevertheless, these considerations do not clearly outweigh the substantial harm to the green belt and the other lesser harms.”
Mr Hand’s decision however was swayed in favour of the travellers by their personal circumstances.
His verdict detailed the following:
“The site would be occupied by five households. Michael Kiely (46) and his wife Frances have two children, Michael Jr (aged 18) and Noel (12). Michael Sr has a father who lives in a house in Manchester where he looks after Michael’s brother who is severely disabled after an accident. His father is 67 and getting too old to look after the brother, so Michael hopes to be able to do so in the future assuming he gets a permanent pitch.
“His eldest son is now too old for school, but Noel would benefit from a better education than can be obtained when travelling around. Francis has family at Toddbury Farm in the Borough near Leighton Buzzard, where they often stay, doubling up on her pitch. His wife also has health problems, being a haemophiliac, but she is reluctant to talk about that and no evidence was produced to enable this statement to be taken any further.
“Thomas Sweeney (36) would live on a pitch with the mother of the Sweeney family, Nora (59). He has three children but they live with his ex-wife who is on a lawful pitch belonging to her father. It is difficult for him to see his children without a settled base. Nora suffered from depression but is now off medication and doing well. Her future health would benefit from the continuity of a settled pitch, especially as this would provide regular access to her own doctor.
“Martin Sweeney (41) and his wife Maria (36) would occupy another pitch with their children Jimmy (16), Caroline (14), Martin (9), Maria (6) and Olivia (2). Martin senior has type 1 diabetes and pancreatic problems and would benefit from a stable location for access to the doctor. His children have had little education due to being constantly on the move.
“James Sweeney (35) and his wife Priscilla (31) would occupy another pitch with their children Crystal (6), Polly-Anna (5), Tommy (2) and Billy (1). Those of his children who are old enough have had little or no education, hence the need for a stable base.
“Finally there is Noreen Sweeney (28), who was not able to attend the Inquiry. Her brother Thomas informed the Inquiry she was 8 months pregnant and suffered from anxiety and diabetes. She has a partner Ben (27) and two children Maria (3) and Chantelle (2), plus the baby on the way. She is concerned about education for her children and her health.”
Mr Hand pointed out that CBC argued how the fact that the children were not currently in school reduced the weight to be given to their needs, but he said: “I agree with the appellant that it is the fact that they do not have a permanent site that has discouraged their take-up of education.
“The various parents who gave evidence made it clear this was an important motivator for the establishment of a settled site. The personal circumstances of the proposed occupiers of the site are in my view significant.
“The alternative is to remain on the road. Several of the adults have poor health, and they would benefit from a settled site, but most important is the needs of the 13 children for a stable base for educational and health reasons.
“In my view therefore, bearing in mind the need to make the best interests of the children a primary consideration and the finely balanced nature of the planning balance described above, the personal circumstances of the future occupiers of the site, when added to the mix, clearly outweigh the harm to the green belt and other harms and that the proposal is contrary to the development plan and that as a consequence very special circumstances exist and I shall allow the appeal.”
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