More homes for Comber

ANOTHER housing development is on the cards for Comber, after planners refused to allow councillors to block it.

Located in the Ardara area to the west of the town, the £15m development racked up 23 complaints from locals worried about its impact on traffic on the already busy Ballygowan Road, as well as concerns about the new homes overlooking neighbouring streets.

Several people in an existing suburban housing estate also feared disruption as future residents of the planned 58 houses will have to drive through that estate to get home.

Planners dismissed those objections and wanted Ards and North Down Council to sign off on the development, stating that it met planning standards and is in an area zoned for housing.

The decision led to councillor Philip Smith claiming the town is in danger of being ‘smothered’ by hosuing developments

At the council’s Planning Committee on Tuesday night however, several councillors raised objections to the scheme, mainly based on the cumulative impact it and several other new housing projects will have.

Councillors complained that infrastructure in the area is already struggling, with the hundreds of extra homes constructed in recent years clogging roads that were built for a much smaller town while making it difficult for people to get school places and GP appointments.

A slim majority of the committee voted against giving the Ardara development planning permission, and then started moves to block the scheme – but planning officials wouldn’t allow councillors to do it.

Council head of planning, Ann McCullough, told politicians that any refusal has to be based on specific planning policies.

And there aren’t any policies to cover the cumulative impact of multiple housing developments, meaning the issue can’t be taken into account.

“I can’t put that forward as a reason for refusal, because it’s not based on any policy,” said Ms McCullough. “We need something based on a roads policy or infrastructure policy.”

She also stated that refusing planning permission on grounds that aren’t covered by policies would result in the council spending a lot of money on a case it would inevitably lose at the Planning Appeals Commission.

During the committee meeting, planning officials said that statutory bodies such as DfI Roads and NI Water had signed off on the scheme, and reinforced that the application has to be considered solely on its own merits and the impact that it alone will have on the local area.

Representatives of developers Lotus Homes also pointed out that under planning rules they could have attempted to build up to 79 homes on the site, yet had plumped for a less dense scheme with plenty of open space.

But politicians were steadfast in their objections, with UUP councillor Phillip Smith arguing that although each recent individual development of 50 to 100 houses wouldn’t have a huge impact in and of itself, taken together they are ‘in danger of smothering the town’.

Said Mr Smith: “Our colleagues at DfI Roads [are] not understanding the impact that development after development in Comber is having on the area.

“I fully accept that the impact from this development [is minor]; the problem is that each on top of the other, it’s becoming problematic. Getting around the place is becoming much more difficult.

“We’re getting to a point where the town is starting to come to a bit of a stop, and that’s before the 700 or so houses due to be developed on the other side of the bypass kick in.”

Councillor Robert Adair registered his surprise that NI Water had okayed the development, stating: “They appear to object to planning applications for community facilities such as a 3G pitch in Portavogie and a play park in Bangor, but they don’t seem to object to any development anywhere.”

Arguing in favour of approving the scheme, councillors Lorna McAlpine and Martin McRandal both reinforced that there weren’t any valid reasons to block it under planning rules, with Mr McRandal adding that there ‘doesn’t appear to be any alternative other than to accept it’.

Branding the split on the committee ‘frankly ridiculous’, councillor Alistair Cathcart said: “This is the Planning Committee, where you make judgements based on planning rules and material planning considerations; that should be your only determining factor.”

The committee eventually voted to approve the 58 homes by seven votes in favour to three against, with four abstentions.

The outcome saw Robert Adair complain: “We’re just here for window dressing.”