South Tyneside Council approves demolition of fire-damaged Whitburn Lodge for new housing development

Plans to knock down a fire-damaged former pub and replace it with housing have moved significantly forward, following a decision by councillors in South Tyneside.

At a meeting on May 20, members of South Tyneside Council's Planning Committee narrowly gave the green light to plans for the old Whitburn Lodge site in Whitburn. The derelict pub site off Mill Lane has been a magnet for break-ins and intentional fires since it shut its doors in 2012, including a New Year's Day 2023 blaze that destroyed large parts of the roof and caused extensive internal damage.

In 2023, national house-builder Lovell Partnerships revealed they had acquired the building and surrounding land, and shortly after proposed plans to construct 32 homes. Despite the majority of councillors approving the housing plans this week, the application still needs to be referred to the government Secretary of State for final approval as the site is located within the Green Belt.

The planning application has sparked numerous public objections since its announcement, with concerns ranging from sewerage capacity to increased traffic, as well as a petition demanding the site's demolition.

Meanwhile, worries have been voiced about the loss of the former pub building, which includes the remnants of Hope House dating back to the 18th century, and potential impacts on the Green Belt.

The housing development has faced a series of delays since it was first scheduled for a decision by the Planning Committee, with an initial postponement in February 2024 due to an "administrative issue", followed by another hold-up in March 2024 after councillors expressed worries about sewage and potential water contamination.

During the March session, both objectors and councillors voiced their concerns regarding the impact that additional homes would have on the existing sewerage infrastructure and its capacity to handle increased flows.

At that time, council planning officers claimed they had conducted internal analyses concerning drainage problems, but later admitted they lacked "statistical evidence" from Northumbrian Water regarding the sewerage system's capacity.

When the decision was deferred in March 2024, councillors cited a lack of adequate information on foul drainage capacity and water pollution as the reason, instructing planning officers to gather more details.

The contentious planning application was once again brought before the Planning Committee on 20 May 2024, where the debate over the proposed development continued.

This included input from opponents such as Steve Lavelle from the Whitburn Neighbourhood Forum and long-time environmental campaigner Bob Latimer, who has spent decades fighting against sewage discharges into the sea along the coasts of South Tyneside and Sunderland.

Critics have cast doubt on the data provided by Northumbrian Water to the council, disputing claims that the proposed development would enhance drainage at the site and questioning the overall capacity of the sewerage system.

Mr Latimer has specifically called for the referral to the government to focus on sewerage concerns rather than Green Belt issues.

In addition, various objectors brought up a range of other concerns, including the proportion of affordable housing, potential strain on local infrastructure, and the deterioration of Whitburn Lodge, with one individual asserting that the building had been "left to rot".

The same critic argued that the village would lose a piece of its heritage to be replaced by "expensive faceless boxes" if the development were to proceed.

Representatives from the landowner and the house-builder made their case in favour of the project during the planning meeting at South Shields Town Hall, highlighting the anticipated environmental, economic, and social gains.

It was mentioned that developers are keen to commence work within the year, pending approval, and claimed that the new development would not only remove an "unsightly building" but also offer better surface water drainage solutions than currently exist.

The applicants further contended that the Planning Committee should not become an arena for settling the ongoing dispute between activists and Northumbrian Water, emphasizing the existing local demand for the new homes.

Claims surfaced that the sewerage system had sufficient capacity to handle the 32-home development at Whitburn. The data cited was provided by Northumbrian Water, according to planning officers.

The council's planners asserted there were no signs suggesting the project would "significantly worsen" pollution on local beaches.

Post-March 2024 Planning Committee meeting, South Tyneside Council's planning department proceeded with recommending the housing plans for approval, following receipt of information from Northumbrian Water.

The argument was made that the project would "secure the redevelopment of a site in a poor and deteriorating condition". Furthermore, it was said to help meet local authority housing targets by delivering eight affordable units on-site.

In terms relating to flood risk and drainage, the council report stated the proposals would be satisfactory if certain conditions were met.

Council planners also stated that the project fulfilled the "very special circumstances" needed to approve Green Belt development. These included the site's "poor condition" and the projects contribution to achieving the council's housing delivery objectives.

During debate on Monday, May 20, some Planning Committee members raised concerns around sewerage data and the existing regulations around the testing of bathing waters. Councillor Paul Dean said he had concerns about data provided by Northumbrian Water, as well as concerns about the current condition of the site and the need to "make it safe".

Councillor Shirley Ford added she was "still not persuaded about the principle of the [housing] development in Green Belt", and the justifications put forward by planning officers, and said the site's character would be "completely changed". After around two hours of speeches, questions and debate, the plans were put to the vote which saw the Planning Committee tied with six votes in favour and six votes against.

However, the planning application was pushed over the line by Planning Committee chair councillor Stephen Dean, who used his casting vote to tip the balance to seven votes in favour and six against. Councillors agreed they were "minded to" approve the plans, and the application will now be referred to the Secretary of State for a final decision.

Councillors were told the government referral was required because of "the amount of floorspace proposed in the Green Belt". Any planning approval would also be subject to the completion of a legal agreement which allows councils to secure financial contributions from developers to help mitigate the impact of developments.

Around £29,400 is sought to help deliver 'off-site biodiversity net gain', as well as £12,896 to mitigate "recreational pressure and impacts" on protected nature sites. A decision on the Whitburn Lodge housing plans will be published once a ruling has been made by the Secretary of State.