Dismay as Newtown developer ‘escapes’ £1.3m in contributions

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BAck in 2005, a property developer was granted planning permission by Scottish Borders Council to build 80 houses on a 4.4-hectare site off Melrose Road in Newtown St Boswells.

According to Roger French, vice-chairman of the community council which serves the village along with neighbouring hamlet Eildon, ownership of the land between the two settlements and next to the old road between Newtown and Melrose has changed several times since then.

Last month, David McMaster, an architect acting for Ulster firm, the Eastonville Trading Company, called a public meeting in the village to tell residents that his client intended, in the new year, submitting a fresh bid for 125 houses on the same site. And he stated that the company, owned by Belfast millionaire David Crick, would not be required to pay so-called developer contributions to SBC on the 80 units for which consent had previously been granted.

These payments, controversial at present as stagnation grips the region’s new-build house market, are exacted by the local authority to cover the cost of increased education provision which developments generate.

They are also levied in the central and northern parts of the region at the rate of £1,587 per house or flat to underwrite SBC’s contribution to the Borders railway project.

Mr French said he and others at the meeting were “stunned” by Mr McMaster’s revelation and, as a result, a Freedom of Information request was submitted to SBC for clarification.

Last week, the answer was forthcoming and it confirmed that the council did not propose to seek developer contributions for the first 80 houses.

“This is seen as grossly unfair, allowing this developer from Ireland to escape paying around £1.3million for the sake of a technicality at a time when local people, builders and developers are forced to pay the education and railway levies in order to get planning approvals,” said Mr French.

“Apparently, after the 2005 plans were approved, a few days were spent moving topsoil into piles on the perimeter of the site – nothing more – and yet SBC says this means planning approval is ‘live’, even though no other work was ever carried out.

“The council claims this is relevant because no charges were in force at the time. But how can this be when we are advised by Eastonville that a completely new planning application will be submitted in the coming weeks which surely should involve charges for all 125 houses, not just 45?

“A new application is certainly needed because this bears absolutely no resemblance to the proposal approved in 2005 with 125 high-density houses representing a 56 per cent increase on the 80 approved. The development is 84 per cent larger than the 68-house allocation for the site in the local llan.

“All planning applicants in our village are advised that existing schools have no surplus capacity and, as a result, a levy of £14,000 is imposed for each new house to fund increased capacity for pupils. Obviously the 80 houses will create a need for additional educational facilities, so the question is: what funds are supporting this and who is playing?”

Mr French claimed, in addition, it had been the overwhelming view of the public meeting that the impending high-density Eastonville proposal was inappropriate for a rural setting which abutted a national scenic area.

Mr McMaster told us the exemption of the first 80 houses from developer contributions had been “a key commercial factor” in Eastonville deciding to acquire the site.

That is hardly surprising given that, apart from the railway levy, developers in Newtown are currently expected to pay £8,383 per house towards the cost of a new primary school in the village, if and when that is required, and a further £3,851 per house towards educational provision at Earlston High.

Jon Bowie, SBC’s developer negotiator, told TheSouthern: “I can confirm the [original] application for development at Melrose Road was submitted and registered prior to development policy being in force.

“It is therefore not appropriate that contributions are sought retrospectively.

“As the consent has, in terms of planning legislation, been implemented, the development does not require further permission to build out the consented plans.

“However, any fresh application received in respect of this site that deviates from the consented one in terms of density will require contributions to be sought in line with prevailing policy for any additional units over and above the approved application.”

Mr Bowie added that the original consent also pre-dates the SBC policy which demands that 25 per cent of new housing developments in the central Borders are affordable.