CONTROVERSIAL plans for 5,200 new homes and 20 employment sites in South Lakeland have tonight been agreed.

Councillors at a full meeting of South Lakeland District Council in Kendal voted 32 for and 13 against to formally adopt the Local Plan.

The plan sets out where potential homes and businesses might go in future.

It was described by SLDC’s ruling Liberal Democrats as ‘a blueprint for the social and economic future of South Lakeland’.

But opposition Conservatives branded it a ‘developers charter’ and a ‘disaster for the district.’

Around 68 greenfield sites in towns and villages across South Lakeland are earmarked for new homes in the plan with 20 new employment sites.

The council’s adoption means developers are now expected to come forward with building projects.

Under the plan, thirty five per cent of any homes have to be affordable.

However any applications would still need to pass through the council planning process.

However, critics say the adoption by council of the plan now 'binds' the hands of the council to passing applications on allocated sites – or face costly legal battles with developers.

Presenting the plan, development portfolio holder Coun Jonathan Brook (Lib Dem) said it represented ‘seven years of hard work’ which had been ‘complex and contentious’.

But he said the plan had been found ‘sound’ by an independently-appointed planning inspector and that it had involved 'extensive' consultation with local residents.

“We simply will not be able to please everyone,” said Coun Brook. “This is the nature of democracy and this document is democracy in action.”

“If we do not have a plan, we have no ability to defend land from speculative developers who will get planning permission under the assumption of favoured development," said Coun Brook.

He said if the council did not accept the plan, it would lead to ‘chaos’ and an ‘economic and social catastrophe’ for South Lakeland.

But Coun James Airey for the Conservatives, accused him of ‘scaremongering’ and claimed the Lib Dem benches had been ‘whipped’ into voting for the plan by party MP Tim Farron.

Coun Airey said: “Tonight is the night to say ‘Woah. Hang on. We’ve got this wrong’. If you think the pressure is going to be off after tonight you’re sorely mistaken.

“The anger of the public is just about to start. When they see the damage you are going to let happen to this beautiful area, you lot are in a lot of trouble.”

He said those who believed SLDC's planning committee could turn down development if the site was in the Local Plan were ‘living in cloud cuckoo land’.

However, Lib Dem councillor Ian Stewart told the meeting how one council had rejected its Local Plan but had then not been able to block housing developments imposed on its community by the Bristol-based Planning Inspectorate.

Coun Stewart said: “The experience of other places is there for all to see. This plan ensures 99 per cent of this area will not be developed. I don’t regard less than one per cent of development in South Lakeland as a blight. I regard not backing this plan as a blight on South Lakeland.”

Tory leader Coun David Williams described it ‘a beast’ and said it was ‘bungled’.

“We on this side appreciate the plan has been approved by the inspector but we have grave concerns about many of its aspects,” said Coun Williams.

“This one doesn’t reflect the wishes of the local community – indeed it ignores many of them. Roads, schools and infrastructure have not been considered.”.

Long-serving councillor Roger Bingham (Con) said he had never known residents more upset.

“The bulldozers move in tomorrow and will forever blight our countryside,” said Coun Bingham, who added that the council had a responsibility as ‘stewards’ to the area.

But Coun Janet Willis, for the Lib Dems, told the meeting: “We must not forget that all of these sites have been offered up for development by the landowners already. Without or without the plan - development would still go ahead.”

Coun Bharath Rajan, for Labour, pointed out that each application would still be subject to the planning process and would not mean that ‘every field’ in the plan would end up with a house in it.

Addressing Coun Airey, Lib Dem Coun Clare Feeney-Johnson said: “I think you’re the one scaremongering James. You’re whipping people up into a frenzy. We are not the retirement corner of Cumbria. Words are easy when you sit in opposition; to say what people want to hear. It’s more difficult to make hard decisions.”

Coun Joss Curwen (Con) described what he had heard as ‘rubbish’.

Coun Graham Vincent (Lib Dem) spoke of how the area was losing out on job-creating companies moving into the area – including 900 jobs at a technology park because there was not the dedicated space to build.

Coun Amanda Rigg (Con, Ulverston) has concerns about its impact on the town.

“Ulverston is a beautiful historic market town and this would change and spoil it. I’m not against development but this amount of houses is ludicrous," she said.

Lib Dem Coun Mary Wilson asked: “Where are all these fantastic bits of new land going to come from? Spending another year thinking about is not going to come up with another plan.”

Lib Dem councillor Andy Shine said he was ‘appalled at the negativity’ from the Conservative benches.

“It’s a bit late for promises to co-operate,” said Coun Shine, adding: “Where have you been these last eight years? You call it a developers charter but it protects the area from developers.”

Coun Janette Jenkinson (Con), a former chairwoman of SLDC’s planning committee, said: “There is no chance now of anybody being able to oppose this (at committee) – and people are just starting to wake up to that. The public see empty homes and then us allowing building on greenfield sites and they don’t understand it.”

Coun Viv Rees (Lib Dem) said: “Most of this discussion tonight has been very downbeat but actually this is something we ought to be rejoicing about. We can actually deliver something for South Lakeland.”

Coun Andrew Gardner (Con) said one of the aims of the plan was to bring down local house prices by making more homes available. “Cheaper houses will put people in negative equity. Merry Christmas South Lakeland!” said Coun Gardner.

Last to speak on the issue was council leader Peter Thornton (Lib Dem), who seconded the plan.

Coun Thornton said: “If you don’t back this plan you won’t be able to move tomorrow for developers turning up in their 4x4s wanting to build anywhere.”

“This plan is also about the 99.4 per cent of sites that haven’t been allocated."

He said the process had taken so long it had involved three different council leaders, three different chief executives and three different Prime Ministers.

“This isn’t something cooked up by the Lib Dems in the last few weeks. This development will happen, whatever you do tonight," said Coun Thornton.

Despite public objection, just two residents spoke against the plan being adopted and its impact on Swarthmoor and Ulverston .

Some residents groups are reportedly ‘disillusioned’ by the process following the recent decision of the planning inspector to find the plan ‘sound’.

After the meeting, a spokesman for Mr Tim Farron strongly denied the accusation by Coun Airey that local Lib Dem party members had received the 'party whip' to vote in favour if the scheme.

Dennis Reed, chairman of the Green Spaces Committee, which opposed certain elements of the plan, said the Liberal Democrat-run authority had 'railroaded through their plans to despoil many of our green spaces'.

"Public consultation has been a complete farce and the political price will be paid when the damage becomes clear to local residents as the bulldozers plough up our fields," said Mr Reed.