Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has refused to “call in” a contentious plan to build a café and hotel on the 4,000-year-old Neolithic site, which was approved last October following a narrow 4-3 vote.
He says “it should be determined by the local planning authority”, which is Kirklees Council.
The council owns the freehold of the land formerly occupied by the 1850s Castle Hill Hotel. Developers Mick and Barry Thandi are tenants on a 999-year lease, paying rent of just £7.63 per annum.
Mr Jenrick’s decision means the Thandis have got the green light to redevelop the land formerly occupied by the hotel.
For Meltham-based architects One17 Kevin Drayton has previously described Castle Hill, which includes the 1890s Victoria Tower, as “the premier heritage asset of Kirklees and certainly the most prominent”.
He added: “The public benefits of the scheme are enormous in themselves but they may be the catalyst that sparks a beneficial wave of general regeneration.”
Response to the news of Mr Jenrick’s decision has been rapid, and has manifested itself in disappointment, frustration and exasperation.
Among those applauding the news was Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, who said he had always been in favour of “the right kind of development” at Castle Hill.
He said: “I can now see Castle Hill becoming one of the top ten most visited spots in the north of England.”
Huddersfield Civic Society, which made the request for a call-in review, said it was “disappointed and troubled” by Mr Jenrick’s decision.
A spokesman said it “flies in the face of current and proposed planning policy” aimed at protecting green belt and environmental and heritage assets.
He added: “This decision appears to us to give tacit approval for wholesale breaches of National Green Belt policy. Despite the lack of call-in request, the development still cannot go ahead without Scheduled Monument Consent from Historic England.
“The level of our concerns, regarding the proposed development, are such that we will continue to lobby Historic England.”
Thus there is a glimmer of hope for objectors: that Historic England, which said it was not in favour of the Thandis’ plan, can somehow still scupper the scheme.
However Kirklees Council said: “We’ve received the Secretary of State’s decision not to call in the decision made at Strategic Planning Committee. We will now issue the decision notice for the application.”
Green councillor Coun Andrew Cooper, whose Newsome ward borders the site in Almondbury, said local people had been “let down” by Labour councillors on the committee that voted in favour of the plan and the housing secretary.
“It’s a very disappointing day,” he said, “One that will see a commercial hotel built on a site of historical value. This goes against the wishes of most local people. They have been ignored by the council and now by government. It doesn’t do much for people’s faith in either local or national democracy.”
Labour quartet Cathy Scott, Mohan Sokhal, Carole Pattison and Steve Hall voted for a low-lying café/restaurant with bedrooms and interpretation facilities for visitors plus a car park at a meeting of the council’s Strategic Planning Committee on October 28.
The Conservatives’ Coun Bernard McGuin, who represents Almondbury, said the battle was lost “but the war rumbles on”.
He said: “I am surprised that the Secretary of State has not taken note of the strength of feeling on this subject. The fallback position is that Historic England are responsible for national monuments and I know they were not minded to give permission for building on the hill. If they keep that line then the build, as planned, cannot go ahead.
“I think a small-scale café and toilets is more acceptable to most people and Historic England, the question being whether that would be viable for the Thandi brothers.”
He revealed that a Friends of Castle Hill group with cross-party support is now in the process of being set up.
His ward colleague, the Lib Dems’ Coun Alison Munro, said the government’s decision showed a bias towards developers over local people.
She said: “It seems that in reaching his decision, the Secretary of State has considered his policy on calling in planning applications and concluded he will not be doing so in this case.
“I am not sure what the protocol will be now, but I do know that changes in planning laws and removal of the Community Infrastructure Levy shows that the Tories favour developers over local objectors.”
Coun Cooper added: “If we are down to the protection that Historic England offers, that means all the elected protection we had has failed us.”
The old Castle Hill Hotel stood for 153 years. It was flattened in 2003 and the site cleared in 2005. The Thandis were heavily criticised for bulldozing the listed building and disposing of the stonework.
They also flouted agreed permissions that only allowed them to extend and alter the building. They have since put forward multiple proposals for the Castle Hill site.