Liam Randall, local democracy reporter
The Planning Inspectorate has been condemned as “not fit for purpose” after a controversial decision to grant permission for 112 new houses in Wrexham.
Glyndwr University was originally denied consent to develop a grazing field in New Broughton in July 2019 in the face of concerns over the loss of green barrier land and the impact on traffic.
However, it was announced last week that the decision had been reversed by a Welsh Government-appointed inspector following an appeal.
The move was slammed by local councillor Alan Edwards, who described it as “a disgrace”.
North Wales MS Llyr Gruffydd has joined the list of critics after questioning why the proposed sale of the land on Gatewen Road to address the university’s funding issues was raised in the inspector’s report.
The Plaid Cymru politican also challenged the relevance of Aidan McCooey’s observation that traffic was “light” during his visit to the site last month, when coronavirus travel restrictions were in place.
Mr Gruffydd said: “The inspector’s report was based on a number of assumptions that local knowledge would have understood to be inaccurate.
“The plan was one of nine planning applications brought forward by Glyndwr University on surplus land it owned to enable it to redevelop the campus.
“In itself this is a good thing but planners know that planning applications have to be taken on their own merits rather than the good that can be achieved with the proceeds.
“There are exceptional cases for enabling development – for example to save a crumbling listed building – but this wasn’t one of them.
“Providing funding to help the university’s funding problems is not a reason to grant a planning permission, yet the inspector highlighted this as early as paragraph four of his report.”
He added: “The inspector also challenged the traffic congestion objections, based on his own site visit in January 2021. I’m sure he was aware of the lockdown last month.
“Children weren’t going to school, many people are either home working or on furlough as well as travel being limited to essential journeys only. He said traffic was light – what else did he expect?”
‘Cannot be justified’
Mr Gruffydd said during normal times, traffic from the nearby B&Q roundabout often backs up towards New Broughton.
Frustration has also been expressed over the appeals process after objectors were taken by surprise by the issuing of the inspector’s report.
It was expected that opponents would be able to take part in an inquiry, but a written decision was published instead as coronavirus restrictions led to the cancellation of the hearing.
Mr Gruffydd said it raised serious questions about the planning system.
He said: “I think local councillors got the decision right the first time round – the planning inspector has sided with a development that cannot be justified on planning grounds.
“It brings into question the whole appeals system because, even if the report is found to be inaccurate, the only way to challenge it is through an expensive judicial review in the High Court.
“That’s beyond the pockets of most communities so it’s not a level playing field.
“I’m afraid that the planning system as it stands is not fit for purpose and urgently needs reforming.”
Concerns have also been raised regarding the outcome by Clwyd South MS Ken Skates.
He said: “I have been contacted by two local councillors and two residents about the independent planning inspector’s decision.
“I have raised their concerns directly with the Minister for Housing and will be happy to share her formal response with constituents.”
The Planning Inspectorate has defended Mr McCooey’s decision, highlighting that the land is included in Wrexham Council’s Local Development Plan.
A spokesperson clarified that his comments regarding traffic were based on a range of evidence and not just his site visit.
The inspectorate said: “As set out in paragraphs 16 to 19 of the decision, the inspector took account of the views of the council, local residents, the highway authority, a transport assessment, an independent audit of the appellant’s evidence and an independent report on road safety at the proposed access.
“Having objectively assessed the evidence before him, he concluded that the issue of congestion and queuing is an existing problem that would not be significantly affected by the proposal and it would not justify the refusal of planning permission.”
Glyndwr University has welcomed the outcome, which officials said would help to fund improvements worth £60 million to its main campus in Wrexham.