THE sale of a council-owned field for housing has been agreed after months of protest and debate.

The land behind Singleton Avenue, known locally as Pickup’s Fields, will be sold to a housing association which wants to build affordable homes.

Bolton At Home, whose plans to build 48 houses were thrown out by councillors in July, has now appealed the planning committee’s ruling.

The deputy leader’s decision to sell the fields comes after the majority of councillors voted against selling the land, recommending to keep it as a green space for the community of Horwich instead.

Cllr Martyn Cox said the decision was difficult but will protect beauty spots in the countryside from future development.

He said: “This was a site that was originally brought forward in January and if this sale had not gone ahead it would have put other sites in Horwich and our green belt land at risk. We are not prepared to do that.”

The land was earmarked for housing five years ago under Labour’s leadership but since then, the local authority has received 456 letters objecting to housing at the site.

Even though the development was rejected by the planning committee, there is nothing legally preventing the use of land for housing, according to Cllr Cox, and the decision could now be overturned by a government inspector.

He added: “This could have serious implications for our green belt, and we as a council are committed to protecting green belt from housing development.”

A proposal to put a fifth of the half-a-million-pound cheque for the land towards regenerating Horwich town centre was blocked at the private meeting on Monday in which the sale was authorised.

Lib Dem councillor David Wilkinson called in the decision for further scrutiny saying that the move, which could be nothing more than a "bribe", is a change of policy and should be debated further.

But Labour councillor Richard Silvester, who argued “strongly” against selling the land, said that all of the proceeds should go to Horwich.

He said: “I am thoroughly disappointed at the Conservatives decision to sell Pickup’s Field. This Tory Council has ignored the decision of full council not to sell the land and ignored all of the objections from the public consultation.

"All of the monies from the sale of the land, which will be an extremely substantial amount, should now come to Horwich to provide an alternative facility to the loss of this public open space.

"Labour would not have sold this land because we would have listened to the public consultation. Unfortunately a minority Conservative council voted in by the Lib Dems and Horwich First are now responsible for the loss of this valuable open space.”

Lib Dem leader Roger Hayes, who called in the decision to sell the land back in July, said he is “extremely” disappointed that Cllr Cox has ignored the “overwhelming views” of the people of Horwich.

UKIP leader Sean Hornby defended the decision however, saying that he would be “grateful” for a housing development like this in his patch.

But Horwich and Blackrod First Independents leader Marie Brady accused councillors of “cynical and dishonest manipulation”.

She said: “Change of administration following May elections and suddenly everyone loves Horwich and wants to be our new best friends. Hypocrisy at it’s very best.”

Bolton at Home chief executive Jon Lord welcomed the news.

He said: “We welcome this decision as these homes would help to meet local housing needs in Horwich.”