A development on green belt land has been waved through by councillors seeking to address the “desperate” need for affordable homes in Barnet.

Vision Residences has won permission to build seven homes on a site called ‘Jeanette’s Land’, north of The Ridgeway in Mill Hill, which has been vacant for nearly a century following the demolition of a single-storey building linked to a former convent school.

The decision came despite the refusal of a similar scheme three years ago – and Barnet Council planning officers warned it could lead to a judicial review being brought against the authority. In addition to its location within the Green Belt, the site lies within Mill Hill Conservation Area, an area of special archaeological interest, and is close to several Grade 2-listed listed buildings.

Building on the Green Belt is generally deemed inappropriate by national planning policies. It is sometimes permitted on previously-developed land, however, providing its impact is not greater than the former development and it meets an identified affordable housing need.

Plans by the same developer to build seven two-storey flats on the site were refused by the council in 2019 over the impact on the Green Belt and conservation area. An appeal was subsequently dismissed by a government-appointed planning inspector, who judged that there would be substantial harm to the open character of the Green Belt and harm to the special setting of the conservation area.

Revised plans for the site were submitted to the council earlier this year. Under the new scheme, seven homes will be built in a single-storey block, which will include three rooms in the roof space. The developer claims the homes will be affordable and are designed to provide accommodation for key workers at nearby Belmont Farm Children’s Nursery.

After the updated plans were submitted to the council, 24 members of the public lodged written objections, including concerns over harm to the Green Belt and conservation area. There were four letters in support of the scheme from employees of the nursery, mainly focusing on the need for affordable homes.

The proposals were presented to a meeting of a council planning committee on Thursday. Officers recommended refusal, claiming the benefits of the scheme would not outweigh harm to the Green Belt and conservation area.

Peter Jeffrey, an agent for the developer, told the committee that the scheme was designed to “respond to the current shortage of affordable living accommodation” which he said was “particularly acute” in Barnet. 

The agent said rent would be linked to the salaries of staff at the nursery school – who he said were currently “priced out of the market” and facing “long commutes” – and would not exceed 75% of the cost of local market rent homes. 

Mr Jeffrey added that the proposed building would “barely be visible from the roadside” and described the site’s current contribution to the character of the Green Belt as “negligible”.

Under questioning from councillors, he said any homes not taken up by nursery staff would firstly be offered to other local teachers, and this would be enshrined in a legal agreement that would remain in place even if the site is sold in the future.

No opponents of the plans spoke during the meeting. 

Elliot Simberg, a Conservative member of the committee, spoke in favour of the scheme. He said the land was currently “derelict” and there were already “quite large” garages nearby that could be seen from the road.

Cllr Simberg added: “We desperately need social, affordable housing in the area. There is a Section 106 [agreement] proposed that this will be used for the staff at the nursery and anyone involved in education in the borough.”

A council planning officer warned the decision to approve the scheme could be subject to judicial review, adding: “The failure to follow precedent is potentially grounds for that to succeed.”

But the committee unanimously voted against the recommendation to refuse the scheme, with members then unanimously approving the plans, citing the need for affordable housing for nursery staff and the fact that the homes would be built on previously-developed land.