A local authority has hit out at three major housebuilders after they threatened judicial review proceedings over a neighbourhood plan.
Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes and Wainhomes have sent a letter before claim to Cheshire West and Chester Council over its Executive’s decision to approve the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan.
According to the council, the challenge would be on a number of technical grounds as well as questioning the impartiality of the independent examiner of the plan.
The housebuilders have called for the referendum over the neighbourhood plan, scheduled for 24 October, to be suspended.
Cheshire West & Chester said the companies had indicated that they would include the authority’s chief executive, Steve Robinson, in the legal action in his capacity as referendum counting officer.
Cllr Mike Jones, Leader of Cheshire West & Chester, sharply criticised the threat of legal action. He said the authority would continue to back the neighbourhood plan and the referendum would go ahead.
Taylor Wimpey has applied to build 110 homes at Chester Road, Wainhomes Developments wants to build 137 homes on land at Greenlands, and Barratts is seeking to develop 68 homes on land opposite Brookhall Cottages.
As currently drafted, the Tattenhall neighbourhood plan – the first in Cheshire West & Chester – says that “large scale, inappropriate development along existing village boundaries will not be supported by the community”.
The plan suggests instead that future development is limited to housing groups of no more than 30.
The independent examiner was Nigel McGurk. The three claimant companies have claimed that at the time of the examination, he was a non-executive director of Himor (Land) Ltd, part of the Himor Group – a strategic land company promoting a 26-acre urban extension at Hoole Gate, Chester.
“Hoole Gate, they indicate, is one of a number of such extensions being promoted through the emerging Local Plan including competing sites being promoted by claimants,” the council said.
Cllr Jones said: “Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan represents over two years of hard work by a local community dedicated to producing its vision for the future development of the village and its surrounding areas.
“It would be absolutely tragic if such dedication and commitment was threatened simply because the plan’s recommendations differed from developers’ requirements.”
Cllr Herbert Manley, Executive Member for Growth and Innovation at Cheshire West & Chester, said the authority “totally rejected” claims of ‘apparent bias’ on the part of the independent examiner.
He said: “Our lawyers are adamant that there are no grounds to suggest that the Examiner could have been biased with regard to Tattenhall, simply because he was a non-executive director of a company involved in a totally unrelated proposal at Chester.
“Our legal advice is that there are no legal or factual grounds to doubt the independence, rationality and thoroughness of the examiner’s report. The developers did not complain about Mr McGurk’s appointment prior to the examination or during any hearing.”
Commenting on the claims, Samuel Stafford, associate director at HIMOR Group, said: "Mr McGurk was appointed as examiner through the formal Neighbourhood Planning Independent Examiner Referral Service (NPIERS), which provides communities and local authorities with access to impartial and highly qualified examiners.
“The service has been developed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Planning Officers Society, Royal Town Planning Institute, Action with Communities in Rural England and Locality, with support from the Department of Communities and Local Government.”
Stafford added: "Mr McGurk made Cheshire West & Chester Council aware of HIMOR's Hoole Gate proposals prior to an interview with the council, during the interview itself, and afterwards in a formal declaration.
"HIMOR consider the implication of a relationship between our Hoole Gate proposals, which are being promoted through the Cheshire West & Chester Development Plan, and the outcome of the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan examination, to be an affront to the integrity of both Mr McGurk and the neighbourhood plan process undertaken by Tattenhall & District Parish Council."
A spokesperson commenting on behalf of Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes and Wainhomes said: “We can confirm that we have been party to correspondence concerning the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan and are currently considering a response received from the council’s lawyers before deciding upon the next steps.
“It is important to stress that the neighbourhood plan process is open and transparent and so, should it be necessary for the matter to be considered further, the appropriate forum for doing so is through the courts and not through the media.”