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Controversial new Sunderland affordable homes development approved after row over loss of green space

Controversial plans for homes in the Southwick area have been narrowly approved – despite concerns over loss of green space and wildlife impacts.

By Chris Binding
Wednesday, 15th June 2022, 9:09 am

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Back in November 2021, Sunderland City Council’s planning department validated an application from Gentoo Group Ltd for outline planning permission for the development.

The application, which is part of the housing provider’s affordable homes programme, sought permission for up to 110 houses on land north of Emsworth Road in the Carley Hill area.

As an outline application this aimed to establish the principle of housing on site, with matters of layout, scale, access and landscaping set to be confirmed in a further ‘reserved matters’ planning application.

There are concerns over a loss of green space.

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A ruling on the plans was originally expected at a planning hearing in March, 2022, however councillors voted to defer a decision to allow for a site visit and for a council ecologist to attend a future meeting to answer questions.

The outline housing application was brought back before the new city-wide Planning and Highways Committee on Monday, June 13, with council officers recommending the plans for approval.

According to planning documents, the parcel of open space proposed for development forms a “green wedge” between existing residential sites, with Fulwell Quarry Local Nature Reserve adjoining the northern boundary.

Council planning officers previously clarified that a section of Tyne and Wear Green Belt included in the Gentoo scheme, to the north of the site, would not be used for houses but instead, solely for “ecological landscaping”.

These works include “improved planting” and creating a “landscape buffer” to a nearby Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A committee report prepared for decision-makers said the housing scheme would have adverse impacts arising from the loss of trees and a “loss of biodiversity across the site” but stressed this could be offset to an “acceptable level”.

Proposed mitigation measures included the “creation of biodiversity improvements” and ongoing maintenance of an area of identified open space adjacent to the site.

Planning officers, in a report, added that the economic and social benefits from the housing scheme “should carry greater weight in the planning balance than the environmental harm”, subject to conditions.

At the crunch meeting on the proposals at City Hall this week, a number of senior councillors spoke out against the plans raising concerns about the loss of green space used by the community, wildlife impacts and more.

Councillor Denny Wilson, chair of the council’s North Sunderland Area Committee, said there were few green spaces left in the north of the city and that the remaining spaces were “constantly under threat”.

Cllr Wilson told the meeting that new plans would “destroy the habitat of two of Britain’s rarest butterflies” and would lead to the “unnecessary loss of a settlement break” and the loss of green space used by residents.

The councillor, who represents the Castle ward, also suggested the application was “speculative” and had been submitted to see if the Planning and Highways Committee was a “soft touch”.

Councillor Michael Mordey, Hendon ward member, said the plan clashed with commitments in the council’s Core Strategy and Development Plan (CSDP) around protecting green space and the Green Belt.

The councillor, who helped develop the CSDP, or local plan, when he previously served as a cabinet member, said the Southwick housing plan could risk setting a precedent for similar developments in future.

Several members of the public also described how the local Southwick community would be affected if the green space was lost to housing development.

One public objector described the space as a “valuable asset to the young people of the area” and a popular location for activities which should be protected for future generations.

Councillor Michael Butler, Southwick ward member and former chair of the now defunct Planning and Highways (East) Committee, also called for the plans to be refused.

His concerns included the “unacceptable loss of a small amount of Green Belt”, loss to the local amenity and potential damage to local wildlife, habitats and the SSSI site.

Cllr Butler added: “This does not fit the agenda of a council that wants a clean, green and healthy city”.

A representative for Gentoo, speaking at the planning meeting, said the site had been identified in strategic documents as a ‘deliverable’ housing site and that development would have economic and social benefits, including safeguarding apprenticeships.

Councillors heard the housing was being proposed to help meet city-wide targets and demand for Gentoo homes, with the housing provider currently facing a waiting list of around 15,000 people.

According to planning documents, affordable homes for the Carley Hill site would be based on an anticipated ratio of 75% affordable rent, 10% rent to buy and 15% shared ownership.

The inclusion of a section of Green Belt in the plans to the north also aimed to allow council officers to have greater control of how the ecological mitigation measures would be brought forward.

However not all councillors were convinced, with several members of the Planning and Highways Committee noting the proximity of the development to the SSSI nature site and the impacts of the loss of green space used by local residents.

After being put to the vote, the plans were approved by a narrow majority of committee members with five votes in favour and four against.

A reserved matters planning application setting out the finer details of the Gentoo housing development is expected to be submitted in the future.