The county council has refused to meet with Billinghay villagers over disputed plans for redevelopment of the former Lafford School site.
The council has opted to press ahead with its outline planning application, rejecting a suggestion by North Kesteven’s planning committee for the two sides to meet for further talks to try to come to a compromise over the land.
The outline application for planning permission by Lincolnshire County Council had proposed redevelopment of part of the former Lafford School site in Fen Road, Billinghay, which closed in 2010.
This would include building 16 homes on the site of the demolished school, a play area, eight parking spaces and a ‘drop off’ area for use of the neighbouring primary school, swimming pool and children’s centre.
The current design would take up 15 per cent of the old school playing field, the remainder of the field being earmarked for recreational land to be handed to the parish council.
However, residents’ groups, including the parish council, creators of the Billinghay Neighbourhood Plan, and Billinghay Community Group, have argued more of the site should be given up to community use due to its ideally central location. This would include allowance to expand the primary school (due to reach capacity in 2018-19) and doctor’s surgery in response to 560 new homes expected to be built over the next few years in the village allocated for sites in the new Central Lincolnshire Local Plan.
At its meeting last month, the planning committee opted to defer its decision to allow Lincolnshire County Council and Billinghay Parish Council to have further discussions about the site’s future, but this has been ignored by the county council.
The county council told NKDC officers it did not want to talk to the village groups before determining the planning application as talks have gone on long enough, outlining the last four years of discussions with the parish council and residents’ groups.
NKDC case officer Nicola Maplethorpe says in her report that the county council claims it has never received technical evidence to back up the community group’s aspirations. She says: “The applicant appreciates the endeavours by the community group, however they state it has now come to a time where the landowner needs to manage their assets with an ever increasing issue of budget pressures.”
She said the applicant had not taken its decision lightly or in haste and appreciated the deferral was well intentioned, but adds: “The county council has not discounted the potential for the local community to purchase the site or to have discussions in the future, but not before the planning application is determined in its current form.”
Going by planning rules, the district council officers have advised councillors to permit the application when they meet for the planning committee on Tuesday, March 14.
They argue that the Billinghay neighbourhood plan is in too earlier stage of development without enough detailed evidence, consultation or a referendum to be given much weight as a planning document. Eventually it would feed into the district’s new Local Plan.
The officers pointed out: “Whilst sites may be ‘allocated’ for a certain use (in the neighbourhood plan) at this time this may not be with the agreement of the land owner.” Therefore it was questionable whether the ideas for community uses for the Lafford site would be deliverable or viable.
They pointed out that this one development could not be seen as the only answer to potential needs for future expansion of healthcare facilities as the NHS had not required any further capacity yet, as the extra housing development earmarked for the village had not yet materialised.
Claire Markham, chairman of Billinghay Community Group, said: “We have spoken to planning consultants since the last meeting and also had a draft plan professionally drawn up which includes a community hub as well as housing.
“This is backed by evidence from the consultation process. It was our intention to discuss this with Lincolnshire County Council at the meeting requested by NKDC. We feel that our plan for the site fulfils their need to dispose of the site whilst meeting the needs of the expanding community. It has always been our intention to find a suitable outcome for both sides that is commercially viable.”
She went on: “Neighbourhood planning is a long process and this can be evidenced by other plans which have taken as long, if not longer, than ours. The results of the strategic environmental assessment report from NKDC (for the neighbourhood plan) which was due last week have been received this morning and we will now be pressing forward with the formal consultation period.”
She said: “We are very disappointed that the county council was unwilling to follow NKDC’s suggestion of meeting with us.
“The Neighbourhood Plan will continue to act as the voice of the residents and we would be willing to engage with all involved parties at any time.”
Vice-chairman of Billinghay Parish Council Kathryn Locke said they are disappointed that the county council have not met with them as suggested by NKDC.
She said: “We wanted a win-win situation for the county council and the community use on that site, which is what everyone wants. For Billinghay it cannot be just housing without infrastructure.
“We have had a very good relationship with LCC and they initially said it was up to the Neighbourhood Plan and the parish council what the sites uses would be, but then they wouldn’t engage with us.”
She said all their findings had been fed into the district’s Local Plan. She added that at the previous planning committee she updated councillors with a more recent housing survey’s findings done only two years ago. She went on: “The councillors did not know the primary school had lost its library and IT suite (due to increasing pupil numbers) and the medical centre had written to 200 patients saying they could no longer support them. The car parking is a big issue too.”
Mrs Locke said councillors were trying to base their decisions on out of date information and said such an application could not be taken in isolation. “Facilities in the village are getting less and less. We have very limited public transport,” she said.
She vowed to argue their case strongly, saying: “If we cannot have it all, then let us have land for a community hub. Our village hall is not big enough. Some clubs have to take alternate weeks to meet.”
Mrs Locke said they have had professional advisers study the village and identified the former school site as the only place within 10 minutes’ walk of the rest of the village and ticks all the boxes.
She said: “The money from the sale of the houses would not even benefit anyone in the village. I don’t think Billinghay has been treated very fairly.”