Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes and Wainhomes are considering seeking a judicial review against Cheshire West & Chester Council over the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan, which is due to go to a local referendum later this month.
The council issued a lengthy statement rejecting claims contained in a letter from the housebuilders sent to the authority asking it to rescind the executive decision to approve the plan and suspend the referendum scheduled for 24 October. The council said the three housebuilders also threatened to include chief executive Steve Robinson, in his position as referendum counting officer, in the action.
Lawyers acting on their behalf have sent the authority a Letter Before Claim under Judicial Review pre-action protocols based on a number of technical grounds and questioning the impartiality of the independent examiner Nigel McGurk.
The claimants assert that at the time of the examination, McGurk was a non-executive director of HIMOR (Land) Ltd, part of the HIMOR Group, a strategic land company promoting a 26-acre urban extension at Hoole Gate, Chester. Hoole Gate, they indicate, is one of a number of such extensions being promoted through the emerging Local Plan including competing sites being promoted by claimants.
In a statement, Cllr Mike Jones dismissed the claims as "highly regrettable corporate bullying of a local community". He said his authority would continue to back the plan and the referendum would be held as planned.
Taylor Wimpey applied to build 110 homes at Chester Road; Wainhomes Developments 137 homes on land at Greenlands and Barratts 68 homes on land opposite Brookhall Cottages. Wainhomes and HIMOR are both owned by Bill Ainscough but have separate management.
But the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan, the first in the borough and one of the national pilot plans, advocated that "large scale, inappropriate development along existing village boundaries will not be supported by the community". The plan suggested that future development be limited to housing groups of no more than 30 units.
Jones said: "Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan represents over two years of hard work by a local community dedicated to producing its vision for the future development of the village and its surrounding areas.
"It would be absolutely tragic if such dedication and commitment was threatened simply because the plan's recommendations differed from developers' requirements."
A spokesperson commenting on behalf of Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes and Wainhomes said: "We can confirm that we have been party to correspondence concerning the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan and are currently considering a response received from the Council's lawyers before deciding upon the next steps. It is important to stress that the Neighbourhood Plan process is open and transparent and so, should it be necessary for the matter to be considered further, the appropriate forum for doing so is through the Courts and not through the media."
Samuel Stafford, associate director at HIMOR Group, responded to the allegations: "Mr McGurk was appointment as Examiner through the formal Neighbourhood Planning Independent Examiner Referral Service (NPIERS), which provides communities and local authorities with access to impartial and highly qualified examiners. The service has been developed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Planning Officers Society, Royal Town Planning Institute, Action with Communities in Rural England and Locality, with support from the Department of Communities and Local Government.
"Mr McGurk made Cheshire West & Chester Council aware of HIMOR's Hoole Gate proposals (www.hoolegate.co.uk) prior to an interview with the Council, during the interview itself, and afterwards in a formal declaration.
"HIMOR consider the implication of a relationship between our Hoole Gate proposals, which are being promoted through the Cheshire West & Chester Development Plan, and the outcome of the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan examination, to be an affront to the integrity of both Mr McGurk and the neighbourhood plan process undertaken by Tattenhall & District Parish Council."
Cllr Herbert Manley, executive member for growth and innovation at CWAC, said: "Our lawyers are adamant that there are no grounds to suggest that the examiner could have been biased with regard to Tattenhall, simply because he was a non-executive director of a company involved in a totally unrelated proposal at Chester.
"Our legal advice is that there are no legal or factual grounds to doubt the independence, rationality and thoroughness of the Examiners report.
"The developers did not complain about Mr McGurk's appointment prior to the examination or during any hearing."
In his report Mr McGurk states that over 4,000 volunteer hours had been put into the neighbourhood plan prior to examination – "a phenomenal example of civic responsibility and community spirit."
If approved at referendum, the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan would provide a framework for sustainable development of the village and take precedence over the Local Plan on non-strategic issues.