Green belt boundaries around some of the region’s most popular market towns could be re-drawn and protected sites “deleted” in a bid to solve a housing crisis.
Northumberland County Council says a failure to keep pace with an ageing and increasing population has meant it is behind Government guidelines on housing numbers.
In a bid to plug the deficit, the council is proposing to “delete” green belt land around Hexham, Prudhoe and Ponteland “in order to deliver the level of economic and housing development required”.
Boundaries around Morpeth are also earmarked for adjustment in a consultation paper released by council leaders this week. Tensions are already high in rural areas of the county as a string of controversial developments await their fate around Darras Hall and Ponteland.
Last night Hexham MP Guy Opperman criticised the “attack on green belt” land and said the consultation paper meant his “worst fears were could be coming true”.
A spokesman for Northumberland County Council last night insisted the consultation was ongoing but said it was acting to ensure “the right amount of development in the right places to help it to thrive economically”.
But Mr Opperman said: “From this initial report it looks like some of our worst fears could be coming true. I would be very concerned if west Northumberland, and in particular our towns of Hexham, Prudhoe, and Ponteland were to be singled out in the county for an attack on our green belt.
“While the rest of the county seems to be have its greenbelt protected, and even extended in places like Morpeth, it looks like we have a disproportionate attack on our green belt.
“Despite clearly promising to reflect the Government’s commitment to safeguarding green belt protection, the county council seems determined that my patch will be developed. I will wait to see the detailed and specific proposals they come forward with at the end of the month, but this really does look worrying for my area.”
The move is part of council’s long-delayed efforts to produce a legally binding planning document setting out where homes can be built over the next two decades. Plans suggest the council needs more than 24,000 new homes to cater for a population increase of 10%.
The majority of these homes, approximately 13,000, are earmarked for south east Northumberland while 6,000 are planned for the central Northumberland area. Another 4,000 will be built in north Northumberland and the west part of the county will receive 1,500.
Alma Dunigan, of the Ponteland Green Belt protest group, said: “I think it’s gravely concerning that the south east part of the country seems to be having the lion’s share of their green belt eroded.”
She added: “We recognise that we need more affordable homes in the Ponteland area because we have an excessively ageing population and there doesn’t appear to be any suitable housing for the young.
“Maybe some would welcome this but it still comes back to the same thing - it is a Government directive to save green belt land and Ponteland is surrounded by it.”
A spokesperson for Northumberland County Council said: “Work on the consultation document is still on-going, with the housing numbers and other information still being finalised. The aim of the consultation process is to allow everyone to have their say on some of these proposed changes, which are vital to the future of Northumberland.
“Through the local plan we want to ensure that Northumberland has the right amount of development in the right places to help it to thrive economically, while still protecting all that is special about this county.
“The age profile of the population in Northumberland is rising, and if we don’t enable more houses to be built the working-age population will decline – and we won’t be able to develop and sustain businesses and jobs.
“In order to achieve this we are suggesting an increase in the number of houses built each year, as well as some changes to the Green Belt in certain areas to enable this to happen.
“Later this month we will be releasing the detailed proposals and I would encourage everyone to look at them, and the evidence gathered to support them. There will be plenty of time to make your views known and we want to talk to as many people as possible.” There will be nine-week consultation period.