HUNDREDS of jubilant Byfleeters were out celebrating on Tuesday night after winning the final round in a controversial six-month battle over a gypsy site on green belt land.
Adorned in their Save Byfleet Green Belt T-shirts, 300 to 400 residents turned up with banners at Woking’s HG Wells Centre to hear the views and verdict on the Murrays Lane application, to which there had been 1,185 representations.
Although unanimously rejected by the 10 committee councillors, some expressed that their decision was purely policy led and warned that Byfleet’s green belt would not be exempt when the need arises.
Resident Mary Bridgeman was overjoyed at the committee’s final verdict. She said: “I am delighted but we know an application will be back, but we are getting better and quicker at opposing them. I hope I never have to wear this T-shirt again!”
At the rowdy meeting planning chairman Councillor Michael Smith asked the audience not to applaud between speakers. He said: “This is a council meeting. We are not here for your entertainment.”
He also had to interrupt the audience’s jeering when the applicant’s representatives spoke. He said: “I remind the audience of their duty of courtesy to let people speak.”
Case officer Michael Parker gave reasons for his recommendation, which included ‘significant impact on the surrounding area, the narrow road layout, insufficient waste facilities and lack of flood risk tests’.
He concluded: “The applicant has failed to address issues and refusal is recommended.”
Byfleet, West Byfleet and Pyrford Residents’ Association chairman Godfrey Chapples said: “We need to keep the land on green belt so it remains the same in perpetuity. Every locality needs open spaces. Policies may come, policies may go, Byfleet lives on forever.”
Resident Carly Harwood also appealed to the committee: “Irrespective of policies, you have an obligation to residents. Please don’t sit on the fence.”
Secretary of the association John Bond hopes the decision will deter future proposals.
He said: “This will set a precedent. If it were to go through, others would follow.”
Ms Bridgeman added: “Murrays Lane is this little oasis of tranquility. It has been a place where people play, run, walk along the canal and all this is free. This is green belt land. The applicant knew what they were buying. I ask that this planning application be rejected.”
On behalf of the applicant, town planner specialist Simon Ruston tried to underline the need for provision. “There are no other sites in Woking,” he explained. “Personal circumstances of the family should be taken into account and the children need due consideration.”
A case worker for travellers expressed concerns that the health and safety of the family have been severely compromised, to which she was shouted down.
John Hockley from the Traveller Forum argued: “Gypsies have been here for more 500 years. It is legal to travel but illegal to stop. Public attitude has proved that provision for gypsies is not popular.”
But the committee’s ruling was unanimous.
Cllr Graham Chrystie welcomed Mr Parker’s recommendation and praised his ‘exemplary’ work.
Cllr Ian Eastwood expressed his disappointment at what he labelled racist responses to the proposals, while Cllr Richard Sharp said he would not be bullied into a decision by the presence of opposition.
He added: “People need accommodation and they will build on green belt, but I have to go with guidance of planning policy.”
Cllr Kevin Davis, who represents gypsies living in his Brookwood ward, said change was inevitable.
“Murrays Lane is perfect for gypsies because it is small,” he said. “They will eventually arrive in Byfleet.”
Cllr Anne Murray drew the meeting back to its focus before throwing her weight behind the rejection.
She said: “I visited Murrays Lane and I was amazed at the number of people using it.
“Everyone wants the best for their children and I think that is why the site should not be there.
“I agree with the officer’s recommendation.”
Woking MP Jonathan Lord gave his backing to planning officers who threw out the controversial gypsy site proposals.
Mr Lord, who has strongly objected to the application since its inception, said the decision was a victory for Eric Pickles’ hard-line approach to green belt protection.
Long has Mr Lord’s support for residents and desire to protect Woking’s open spaces been public knowledge.
He hopes the result will set a precedent for future applications.
Interrupting his summer holiday to speak to the News & Mail, Mr Lord (right) said: “I am delighted that this application has been refused on proper planning grounds. It is very important that we have a level playing field on planning matters and that designated green belt should not be used for ad-hoc housing.
“I was also very pleased with the announcement of Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, and his minister colleagues a few weeks ago.
“He has made it clearer than it has ever been that green belt is not to be used for small scale residential planning applications.
“It is great to have a considerate Government that is taking a really robust line in this on-going issue.”