Borough councillors in Bedford have overturned part of a village’s neighbourhood plan – just 11 days after it was resoundingly approved by the community.
More than half the 482 electors of Stevington turned out on May 6 with a massive 227 of them (92 per cent) supporting the approval of the neighbourhood plan, which listed a former chapel as a “community facility.”
But at a meeting on Monday, which one objector described as a “comedy of errors”, Bedford Borough Council’s planning committee decided to approve plans to convert the Old Chapel, in Park Road, into a three-bedroom house.
In recommending that the committee approve the Red Eagle Securities scheme, a senior council planner said policies are always pushing and pulling and it is a question of finding a balance.
The borough council’s highways experts also objected because the former chapel, which stopped being used for religious services in 1957, doesn’t have any parking.
“It is not the officers’ intention to ignore a recently made neighbourhood plan,” said council planning chief Janine Laver.
“But there will always be push and pull policies in a plan and they have to be balanced.”
The committee was told that the building, which has been given status as a heritage asset, is “unstable and a danger to health” and is being “propped up by buttresses.”
The company plans to stabilise the building and restore it, said Mrs Laver. And as the building had no parking spaces, that would not change in the future.
But Cllr Alison Foster (Cons, Harrold) said she wanted to give the village the chance to buy it.
Cllr Foster said she was “very reluctant to approve” it because it would set a “dangerous precedent” if the borough went against the neighbourhood plan.
“We encourage them to have these plans and they need to trust us,” she said.
But the committee was advised not to go down this route.
The committee, meeting in person for the first time in more than a year at the Corn Exchange, suffered sound problems with councillors and officers complaining that they could not hear one other.
To a cry of “this is agony” from one councillor, a vote was taken for a second time after the council’s legal expert said he did not see the first vote take place.
Cllr Foster was the only councillor to oppose the plan, which was supported by five votes to one.
One other member of the committee was ruled out of the vote and the chairman decided not to take part because he had been unable to hear a presentation at a previous meeting.
After the meeting, objecting neighbour Paul O’Flynn said: “The meeting could best be described in my opinion as a comedy of errors.
“Frankly it should have been abandoned because the officers could not hear the councillors and vice versa.
“The only councillor to come away with any credit is Cllr Foster.
“She at least appreciates the efforts that villages have put in to produce neighbourhood plans.”
by David Tooley
Local Democracy Reporter