A BIZARRE situation has unfolded in which both the Conservative and Labour parties reversed their opposing election pledges over a controversial Local Plan, a meeting has heard.

As the blueprint designed to shape the development of Darlington borough for decades to come was pushed forward amid dramatic scenes, the town’s Labour Party admitted publicly for the first time it had blundered in pursuing its Local Plan in the face of strong opposition from residents.

Meanwhile, evidence was presented to the packed Darlington Borough Council meeting that the Conservatives had also made a stark U-turn on their position since sweeping to victory in last May’s elections.

After the meeting, the Tory-run authority’s leader Councillor Heather Scott said her party had followed through on its pledge to listen to residents. She said it had been imperative the draft Local Plan had been moved towards being examined by the government as the alternative could have left the borough at the mercy of developers.

She said: “The Local Plan is essential for the future prosperity of the town, for jobs, for housing, and certainly for infrastructure, for traffic. We have got good road connections, the upgrade of Darlington station coming on, the Tees Valley Airport - opportunities to get people and companies here – and we have got to be sending the right message out there.”

A four-hour meeting of the authority heard residents claim huge housing estates planned for the borough before 2036 would have a “devastating negative impact” and saw none speak in support of the proposals.

Cllr Heather Scott said developers of large-scale estates would fund significant infrastructure, such as new roads and schools needed in the area as well as net gains in biodiversity. She said smaller, piecemeal developments would create uncertainty.

After being pressed to hold a referendum for residents to decide over the loss of swathes of green field land surrounding the town, Cllr Scott replied Darlington had never had a designated green belt and residents could make comments before the government inspector as the Local Plan was examined.

Campaigner David Clarke told the meeting national guidelines stated a well prepared Local Plan should use the government’s formula for housing need unless there were “exceptional circumstances”.

He said while the government formula would lead to 3,540 homes being built by 2036, the council has stated studies of school rolls, GP practices and the local economy had indicated 9,840 homes would be needed.

The authority’s economy portfolio holder Councillor Alan Marshall said the only way infrastructure, such as a relief road connecting Coniscliffe side of the town through a loop to the Burdon area, could be funded was through housing developments. He said the blueprint would enable everyone to achieve their potential and everyone to have a home.

Cllr Marshall said: “The success of borough is predicated on growth, which underpins the future vibrancy of our town centre and our communities. This Local Plan sets out how Darlington will grow, adapt and change and give Darlington the spatial framework for structured development and economic growth.”

Calling for a further period of consultation with residents, which drew cheers from residents in the public gallery, the authority’s former leader Councillor Stephen Harker said he now had major doubts if the blueprint he helped create was right for the borough.

He said: “The lesson that I learnt from last May’s elections is I think what is clear that the Local Plan in its current form is not universally accepted. There’s not even a universal consensus about it.

“Yes we worked many hours on it. On reflection now, I would argue the Local Plan does not truly reflect the broad consensus of residents across the town. Let’s ask some of those difficult questions again. Does the plan go too far?”

Fellow architect of the Local Plan, former council deputy leader Councillor Chris McEwan added the Skerningham garden village part of the blueprint had become “fundamentally compromised”.

Green group leader Councillor Matthew Snedker unfurled a giant poster of an official Darlington Conservative social media site pledge sent days before last May’s election which stated if elected they would create their own Local Plan that listened to residents’ concerns and was in line with the government formula projected housing need for the borough.

He said: “The people of Darlington are entitled to ask if they can have any confidence at all in the way the borough is being led at the moment.”