A POLITICAL row has broken out over the future of green belt land surrounding two of Northumberland's most desirable towns.
Conservative MP Guy Opperman sparked the war of words by warning that the county council will be accused of “selling off the family silver” if it goes ahead with plans to remove certain areas of the green belt around Ponteland and Hexham.
Hexham MP Mr Opperman – together with local Tory councillors – has been waging a campaign against proposals to build hundreds of homes in countryside next to the two towns.
He said this week that no one wants to see large swathes of green belt land being sold off to developers for “cash crop” housing estates, and insisted the council has a duty to protect what makes the area so special.
Now he has been accused by Liberal Democrat bosses at County Hall of trying to panic people for political purposes.
Mr Opperman is strongly opposing plans by two separate developers to build 800 houses in the green belt surrounding Ponteland and Darras Hall.
He has also spoken out against potential housing development at the Shaws Farm site at Hexham.
This week he warned the Lib Dem administration at County Hall that it will be open to accusations of selling off the family silver if it removes land from the green belt.
He said: “People are annoyed that, at the same time as possibly selling off our green belt, we see them [the county council] splashing out millions on vanity projects like a new £20m leisure centre for Ashington.”
Mr Opperman says Local Government Minister Eric Pickles pledged recently that the green belt would continue to be protected from development, so the only scope for making changes rests with the local authority. The council is examining existing green belt allocations as part of the development of its new Core Strategy.
Lib Dem leaders say they are “astonished” by Mr Opperman’s comments and any suggestion that they are to launch an attack on the green belt.
Executive member for regeneration, Tom Brechany, said: “It is inaccurate, not to mention completely unhelpful, of Guy Opperman to try to panic people in this way for political purposes. I have had assurances from council officers on this issue, who have confirmed there are no definite proposals to delete areas of the green belt in Northumberland. Indeed, the Core Strategy, at the issues and options stage, actually proposes an extension of the existing green belt around Morpeth.”
Hexham Lib Dem county councillor Derek Kennedy said: “I am committed to protecting the green belt and have held a number of meetings with residents and officers on the issue, with more to come.”
A council spokeswoman said it is awaiting further Government guidance on the green belt issue, and policies in the emerging Core Strategy will take account of this. “The council has no current proposals to delete areas of the green belt in Northumberland. Notwithstanding this, we have a duty to consider whether any green belt deletions may be necessary to meet future housing and employment land requirements as part of the statutory plan-making process.”