Rochdale Council is to consider selling off protected fields for housing – despite insisting the land was not for sale when a resident enquired about buying it.
Bosses approved the ‘principle’ of selling ‘ the six-acre site – between New Street and Stubley Mill Road, in Littleborough – to Russell Homes at a cabinet meeting this week.
Owned by the council, the fields are not within the green belt but classed as ‘protected open land’. They are currently leased for grazing and bring in a minimal annual income.
A report to cabinet recommended the council be ‘duly authorised to complete the legal documentation for the disposal’, noting the authority’s aim to create ‘a better mix of affordable and higher value homes’.
Russell Homes is developing a neighbouring land, and the reported said it would be ‘appropriate’ for the council to consider an off-market sale ‘in order to deliver a comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, development’.
However, a packed meeting heard from Littleborough councillors and residents who spoke passionately against selling the land off – citing loss of green space, existing traffic problems and an increased strain on public services.
The cabinet was also told that a Littleborough resident had twice been told that the land was not for sale after making enquiries with the council.
Coun Ashley Dearnley read out emails from the council to Matthew Nickless, of Stubley Mill Road. Also seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service the first, from October last year, says the fields are protected by council policies’ and there are no plans to change the use of the land ‘in the near future’.
A further email from November reads: “Stubley Meadows would not be available to purchase. The protections outlined would prevent any disposal of any of this council owned land.”
Coun Dearnley, who represents Wardle and West Littleborough, told the meeting this was ‘of great concern’.
“That was only eight months ago,” he said. “There’s nothing changed during those eight months except a different person, who happens to be a developer, now wants to purchase the land.
“It concerns me greatly that people are not being treated equally and given that opportunity.”
Speaking after the meeting Mr Nickless questioned why the council had given one answer to the developer and another to himself.
“I feel I have been discriminated against [by the council]. They say on their website about equal opportunities. I don’t feel I have been given an equal opportunity. Why has one developer been asked to name their price and no one else is allowed to bid for it? I was told point blank it’s not for sale.”
The meeting – at Number One Riverside – also heard from Coun John Taylor, leader of the Conservative group.
Coun Taylor, who represents Wardle and West Littleborough described plans to build on the site as ‘opportunistic’.
“To sell this would be doing nothing but putting cash before people and cash before community as well, “he added. “There’s absolutely no need to build on this land at all, or sell it, because it does not feature in any [council] plan whatsoever.”
Councillors were told that protected open land remains protected until it is needed. But Rochdale was falling below the target of building 614 homes per year, as included in Places for Everyone – the region’s emerging long-term development plan.
Coun Liam O’Rourke, cabinet member for climate change, said all parts of the borough had reluctantly lost green spaces – but the council had a duty to meet housing targets and ‘make sure this is done fairly across the borough’.
“Infrastructure problems are the same across the board – it can take many hours to get out of Middleton, Heywood as it can Littlleborough and Wardle,” he said. “Therefore there has to be a fair approach to this.”
The Labour councillor also questioned whether people growing up in Littleborough and Wardle would be able to afford to live there in future if the housing stock is not increased.
Coun O’Rourke – who represents North Heywood – noted that key details such as the number of proposed homes and the value of the land – were still to be confirmed.
“Would I be minded to investigate it? Yes. Is that a commitment to go ahead with it in the future? Not necessarily,” he said.
Coun Daalat Ali agreed and cabinet members approved the disposal of the land ‘in principle’, but without committing to sell it.
Rochdale council cabinet met at Number One Riverside on Tuesday night (September 27).