'Unwanted' controversial homes plan for Somerset town approved

Artist's impression of planned development at Underhill Farm in Midsomer Norton
Artist's impression of planned development at Underhill Farm in Midsomer Norton -Credit:Curo Enterprise Ltd.

Revised plans for nearly 60 new homes in a Somerset town have been approved by local councillors. The Curo housing association put forward plans in August 2022 to deliver 60 new homes (subsequently watered down to 54) on the Underhill Farm site on Orchard Vale, on the western edge of Midsomer Norton.

Somerset Council’s planning committee east (which covers the former Mendip area) threw the plans out in November 2023, arguing it would put undue strain on local amenities and it was unrealistic to expect pupils to travel up to 11 miles away to the nearest schools within the council area. Curo submitted revised plans for the same number of homes in early-2024, and lodged an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate, giving it two chances of securing permission to develop the land.

Committee members have now given their backing to the amended proposals - though it will need the approval of Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) Council members before the appeal can be officially withdrawn. While Midsomer Norton lies predominantly within the BANES area, this site (and others to the south) are under the control of Somerset Council, and are therefore subject to its planning policies.

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The site was originally allocated for development within the Mendip Local Plan Part II, which was approved in December 2021, but was subsequently struck from the plan following a successful judicial review - and has not been reallocated within a subsequent call for sites. Under the proposals, 26 and 28 Orchard Vale (which are currently in Curo’s ownership) will be demolished to create room for the new access road into the site, being replaced with two of the 54 planned properties.

Of the 54 new homes, 16 will be affordable, meeting the council’s 30 per cent target for any new development of ten homes or more in the former Mendip area. The development will not contribute any funding for schools or NHS services, with the council’s education department and NHS Somerset arguing that their respective facilities have sufficient capacity.

Curo – which is currently constructing 198 homes at the Keyford Meadows site in Frome – said that they would withdraw their appeal to the Planning Inspectorate if the committee (and its BANES counterpart) backed the amended plans. Councillor Shaun Hughes, who represents Midsomer Norton North on BANES Council, expressed his dismay on the proposals when Somerset Council's planning committee east met in Shepton Mallet on Tuesday afternoon (May 7).

He told the committee: "It’s frustrating that we’re here again, and it’s difficult to understand why. This is a duplicate of the original application which was refused by both councils in November.

"The only significant change is that this is no longer part of your Local Plan - you don’t actually need it. It’s not part of our Local Plan - we don't want it, the residents don't want it, even a High Court judge didn’t want it.

Revised plans for 54 homes on Orchard Vale in Midsomer Norton
Revised plans for 54 homes on Orchard Vale in Midsomer Norton -Credit:Stantec

"BANES will be building 3,000 new homes in our area, of which 900 will be social and affordable. Between us [BANES and Somerset Council] will be building around 1,000 affordable homes - this development is opportunistic.

"Both doctors’ surgeries ar currently oversubscribed and existing residents can only get emergency appointments in the main. Having Curo pay for buses to take pupils on a 22-mile trend trip to the Blue School in Wells is not sustainable."

Deborah Plumber, who lives in the town, added in a statement read out on her behalf: "I don't think this is going to benefit Midsomer Norton. If we need more housing in our area, it’s up to BANES to sort out. Midsomer Norton is already stretched, and our roads are already chaos, with cars parked on both sides. Primary school children will no longer have a safe direct route to their schools."

26-28 Orchard Vale in Midsomer Norton, which will be demolished as part of the proposals
26-28 Orchard Vale in Midsomer Norton, which will be demolished as part of the proposals -Credit:Google Maps

In spite of these concerns, the majority of committee members said the new plans represented an improvement on the previous proposals. Councillor Edric Hobbs (whose Mendip Hills division includes the site) said: "I’m far happier with this application now - it’s addressed my concerns. "It’s looking much better than it did in November."

Councillor Tony Robbins (who represented the same division) said: "At first I thought I had a gun to my head, with the developer saying 'if you don’t pass this, we'll appeal anyway'. But having listened to our officers, I think this is an improved application and I can see no reason to go against our officers."

Councillor Bente Height (Conservative, Shepton Mallet), pictured in March 2021
Councillor Bente Height (Conservative, Shepton Mallet), pictured in March 2021 -Credit:Mendip District Council

There was a difference of opinion over the pressures on local doctors' surgeries, with Councillor Bente Height (Shepton Mallet) questioning whether the existing medical centres could truly cope with more new patients.

She said: "I am on the patient group in one of the Shepton surgeries, and there is not a single surgery in the area which doesn’t have a huge waiting list. I doubt this is different in Midsomer Norton."

Councillor Susannah Hart (Glastonbury) disagreed, stating: "Regarding the situation with the NHS and medical centres - this is no different from anywhere else. If the practices are saying they are taking on new patients, we have to take that at face value. I’m really pleased they’re putting in air source heat pumps - I prefer that to solar panels."

Councillor Susannah Hart (Conservative, Glastonbury), pictured in October 2022
Councillor Susannah Hart (Conservative, Glastonbury), pictured in October 2022 -Credit:Mendip District Council

After around an hour's debate, the committee voted to approve the plans by a margin of eight votes to four. The earliest BANES Council's planning committee will consider the proposals will be its next meeting on June 5.