Proposals for a controversial housing development in Stone Cross have been refused by Wealden planners.

On Thursday (June 17), Wealden District Council’s Planning Committee South turned down an application seeking outline permission to build up to 31 homes on land at Sharnfold Farm, off of Hailsham Road. 

While a standalone application, the proposals had been included as an element of a wider 400-home scheme, for which developers had sought a screening opinion last year.

This potential for wider development appeared to weigh heavily on the mind of ward councillor Alastair Douglas (Con), who said: “Screening was sought on this Sharnfold Farm with thoughts of up to 400 homes.

“Indirectly developers, who own much of the nearby land, see this little step as the first foot in the door to thousands of homes north of the A27 – a place which was once to be preserved. In my experience, developers are normally right. 

“Bearing in mind there have been thousands of houses built and permissions given in Stone Cross ward since 1990, not a scrap of land is left south of the A27 in what, was not long ago, a rural area.”

Cllr Douglas went on to argue the committee should refuse the scheme on the grounds of its cumulative impact on local infrastructure, particularly on local highways. 

Similar concerns had been raised by a large number of local residents, who had submitted more than 161 individual letters objecting to the scheme. These objections covered a wide range of concerns, including environmental, infrastructure and highways impacts.

Cllr Douglas said the true number of objectors were in the “thousands”, however, with many residents supporting the Sharnfold Action Group campaign.

Despite the level of objections, officers told the committee that the council’s lack of a five-year supply of housing land should have a significant impact on the decision. 

This, officers said, meant the scheme should be considered with a presumption in favour of development under national planning rules unless there were material reasons for refusal.

As no technical objections had been raised by statutory bodies – including both East Sussex Highways and Highways England – officers advised these material reasons would be difficult to argue at appeal.

This argument appeared to sway several committee members, including Cllr Neil Waller (Con), who put forward a motion to approve the scheme.

He said: “As we have heard from [officers] this is outside the development boundary and is contrary to our policies, so our initial thought would be that we should refuse this.

“However, as we have also heard we don’t have a five-year land supply and we must comply with the provisions set out within the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework).

“This is a balance, there are significant objections from local residents, but that said, and I am not going to be popular for saying this, a lot of the objections that have come from local residents I am afraid are not material planning reasons to object. 

“[They are] not reasons that we can latch on to as a planning committee to object to this development going ahead. There are no technical objections to this. In particular, the highways authority and the lead local flood authority, neither of these technical consultees object.”

Cllr Waller went on to argue that if the committee were to approve the scheme, then it would at least retain influence over the conditions of the development, which would not be the case should a refusal be overturned at appeal.

These conditions would include legal agreements to secure highways and bus stop improvements, affordable housing and financial contributions towards off-site youth and adult recreation space in Stone Cross.

Despite these arguments the committee ultimately decided to reject planning permission for the scheme. The decision came down to the wire, however, with councillors voting five to six.

While the housing plans were refused, the same meeting also saw planners approve a separate application to convert a number of the Sharnfold Farm’s agricultural buildings into a new business centre.

While separate from one another, the business centre proposals had also been included as an element of the screening opinion application last year.

For further information on the housing proposals see application reference WD/2020/2047/MAO on the Wealden District Council website. For details of the business centre see reference WD/2020/1994/MAJ and for the screening opinion see application reference WD/2020/6505/SO.