No-one had quite seen anything like it before. Over fifty residents who had come to Salford Council's planning meeting to try to win a democratic decision were totally shocked by the behaviour of certain councillors and officers.
For over two hours the planning panel had listened to arguments for and against Peel Holdings plans to build 350 houses on the green field site of Burgess Farm in Walkden. A vote was taken, planning permission was refused and then those in favour, led by Salford Council's Lead Planning Member, Derek Antrobus, tried to get the decision nulled.
First, three councillors voted to visit the site to see for themselves the reality of the housing proposal. Then a vote was taken on the application itself which was rejected by a five to four majority. But, incredibly, Councillor Antrobus and chief planning officers - who had recommended approval of Peel's plans - said the vote didn't count, as councillors had to go on the site visit.
Councillor Karen Garrido, who had proposed the visit, said that she would withdraw her request so that the refusal could stand. But planning officers and Councillor Antrobus again tried to void the decision, arguing that the panel couldn't just vote against the proposal. They had to move a separate motion giving reasons why they were voting against it.
Amidst chaotic scenes, with residents shouting `cheats' and `disgrace' from the public areas, a new motion to refuse the application was put forward and finally accepted by the same 5-4 margin, as Peel Holdings and its Council supporters were sent packing. But the whole process had left residents gobsmacked…
"We're very pleased with the decision but disappointed with the way it was done, it was a shambles" said Eddie Howarth, who had earlier given a passionate and articulate speech to the panel against Peel's plans
"If that's the way the panel operate I'm not surprised that a lot of wrong decisions get made in terms of planning" he added "Of course they tried to get out of it. Once the vote went against them they tried to retract that and suggest they shouldn't decide it. We weren't surprised by the comments from Councillor Antrobus – we all know the history there…"
And Joel Hughes, a pupil at St George's RC High School in Little Hulton, who had made his own personal plea to the panel to save the wildlife on the site, was equally shocked by the Council's behaviour…
"I'm very pleased with the decision but I thought they were being stupid and were trying to make reasons for not allowing it" he said "But I'm really looking forward to doing my work experience on the farm now, like delivering lambs and shearing sheep…"
Campaigner, Sue Occleston added… "I think it was diabolical actually, very poorly done, it was a shambles."
Basically, Salford Council had tried to bulldoze the decision through, despite determined opposition from local residents and logical, articulate arguments against the proposed housing development on a green field site by Peel Holdings.
Speakers against the proposals pointed out the shocking impacts of traffic congestion resulting from 350 `aspirational' houses; the fact that Salford Council itself states that there is no need for the housing; the impact on already overflowing primary schools in the area; and the negative impact on local ecology, including the heavily protected great crested newt which has its breeding ground only 150 metres from the proposed building site.
Councillor Les Turner, representing Walkden South, and scoffing at Peel's plans for a `nature park', asked the panel to imagine they were newts…
"You're living in this tranquil site and suddenly bulldozers, lorries and humans become your neighbours. Would you stay? No, you'd get the hell out!"
And Joel Hughes from St George's High School read out a leaflet he'd produced for the meeting…
"If you take away Burgess Farm…you are taking away a part of history in Little Hulton" he said "We also don't need a `man made' nature reserve that Peel has offered us because we have already got a massive `natural' nature reserve that is home to a variety of animals, some rare and some common but all valued by the local community."
These arguments certainly helped sway the planning panel…
Councillor Judith Tope, representing Eccles, said that "the idea of newts packing their bags and going to their nice new home is just not true." And Councillor Ronnie Wilson, representing Weaste and Seedley, added "We have a history of making mistakes with nature and I don't want to be part of making a mistake. We shouldn't be messing around with nature at this stage."
Other councillors pointed out that even Salford Council's own official report recommending approval of planning permission stated that there was no actual need for this housing in Salford.
Speaking from the public gallery, Councillor Iain Lindley, representing Walkden South, declared that he was "flabbergasted" by the report…
"I thought that there was need for this level of housing but there isn't one" he said "Why would we approve a site on green field land when there is no need? Can members honestly say that they can justify this?"
Panel member Councillor Stephen Ord, representing Irwell Riverside, agreed, saying that he had "concerns that this is strategic land and we shouldn't be using it until it is needed."
In response, Lead Member for Planning, Derek Antrobus, said he was impressed with the design of the houses, spoke of the "long term aspirations of the city" and the £500,000 in potential council tax revenues. He argued that this should be balanced against the environmental issues.
Amidst shouts of `disgrace' he agreed that "something very precious is being lost to people in that area…but we must balance local interests against the wider interests of the city"…
… And amidst more shouts of `disgrace' from the public, Councillor Antrobus threatened that if the panel refused the outline planning permission for the development "it will be upheld on appeal".
Indeed, the skewed nature of the planning system means that the battle is only just beginning. Having finally lost the vote, Peel Holdings can now appeal against the decision – even though, had the decision gone in favour of Peel's plans, residents couldn't appeal.
"We're not over the moon yet because we know it will go to appeal" said Eddie Howarth "This is just the beginning…but at least it's an independent body now that's going to determine whether it should be approved or not."
Councillor Lindley said afterwards that there was a long way to go, and urged people in Salford to oppose plans in the Council's Draft Core Strategy for the site to be brought forward officially for housing…
"I'm really pleased that the panel in the end has listened to the residents and refused the application" he said "But this is the first battle and there's still a long way to go. We have the core strategy up for consultation and that effectively demonstrates a need, so we have to have to work very hard until 1st August to make sure we get it removed from the core strategy"
As for the way the panel meeting was run, he just shook his head…
"I think the conduct of the meeting was poor, and in particular we need to make sure that residents have confidence in the planning system - I don't think they will be encouraged by what they saw this morning."
Or as one Walkden resident shouted from the public gallery "This isn't democracy – this is a disgrace…"
Objections to Salford Council's plan for the Burgess Farm green field site in the Draft Core Strategy can be made online before August 1st (see here)