A controversial plan for a motorbiking centre in a protected landscape could be passed in secret by just two councillors.

South Hams council, in Devon, is set to decide the application to build the off-roading centre behind closed doors, with no discussion by its full planning committee. The land in question is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

More than 70 objections have been received against the Wheeldon Farm development near Totnes. Local residents are worried about the increased noise and damage to surrounding green lanes.

In a report produced by South Hams council in 2004, described activities at the centre. It said: “Trail-riding events take place over a 2½ day weekend and involve riding off the farm along a route including green lanes.

“On Saturday morning 15 riders would be divided into three groups of five riders each with an instructor. They would ride out from Wheeldon along the green lane down to Broadley and then would tour an average of 200 miles along a pre-defined route before returning.

“On Sunday they would repeat the exercise using a different route and returning earlier for dispersal at the end of the afternoon. No lane is used twice the same weekend.”

An original planning application in 2002 was refused. A scaled down plan was then submitted. This was given draft temporary approval by the council, with certain conditions. But South Hams District Council (SHDC) never finalised the approval, which meant that the operators of the Wheeldon biking centre were technically operating without planning permission.

The latest hearing aims to remedy this.

Three campaigning bodies say the hearing should be held in public by the full committee. Robin Hogg, chairman of the Plymouth and South Hams branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “There is an important matter of principle here. These contentious decisions should be taken in the open and not behind closed doors.

“SHDC’s policy has long been to send controversial planning applications to the full development control committee. This is just such a controversial case and environmental concerns need to be weighed against the application in open forum.”

Phillip Ward-Green, chairman of the Devon Conservation Forum, agreed: “This application is contrary to a whole raft of planning policies, and yet the planners appear ready, without any debate, to approve this damaging development in the most environmentally protected area in the South Hams.

“It would be a serious derogation of duty by the district council if this application was decided by just one or two councillors and not taken to full committee.”

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, backed up this view: “It is unbelievable that SHDC thinks it can decide this highly controversial application in secret.

“The effect of the Wheeldon development would be to shatter the tranquillity of the beautiful South Hams countryside, with the roar and whine of motorbikes tearing up and down narrow green lanes, endangering walkers and horse-riders.”

Wheeldon’s owners Andrew and James Savery boast on their website: “The facilities at the Wheeldon Centre are excellent for a variety of uses and include high-quality accommodation, indoor heated pool, games room-conference room, canteen etc, perfectly suited for corporate use and entertainment and, situated in the beautiful South Hams of Devon, also fantastic for a delightful family holiday.”
Objectors say giving Wheeldon planning permission would be contrary to nine stated policies.