A legal loophole could make way for a 750-home development despite it being rejected by councillors.

Councillors on Wealden District Council's development north sub-committee rejected an application to build the huge complex in Downland Farm, Uckfield, yesterday.

The committee agreed with a report by planning officers which recommended refusal because of the huge impact the development would have on the area's woodland and wetland habitats and the pressure it would put on the town's roads.

But, because of a flaw in the way the district's local plan was drawn up, it is likely the developers, Barham Estates, will appeal.

Campaigner against the development, Guy Misrahi, said: "The developers didn't turn up for the hearing, which was a surprise but they're likely to appeal."

To save time during the compilation of the plan, Wealden left out a key consultation stage which means the document is non-statutory.

That means planning decisions based on the plan are not now legally binding and can be challenged at appeal.

Developers have so-far been quick to test the flawed legislation. There are six proposed developments for Uckfield which would radically change the face of the 14,000-strong town of Uckfield and only three of them were in the original local plan.

Downland Farm, the biggest development proposed, was not in the plan. Its developers want to build 750 homes, business areas and a school on the site in the north of the town.

During consultations on the farm site, objections were made by the Environment Agency, Woodland Trust, East Sussex County Council, Highway Authority, Wealden District Council officials, Sussex Wildlife Trust, Campaign to Protect Rural England and local town and parish councils.

Residents submitted a petition of 469 signatures and 215 letters against the scheme. Campaigners expressed relief at yesterday's decision but wearily admitted they faced a long fight.

Mr Misrahi said: "This was expected but it is a good day.

"In terms of the road ahead it's a question of what the local people want. Besides that, it should be declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which would kill developers off forever. That's a long laborious procedure but we have to start thinking about it. The three sites in the plan take us up to 2011 and there's a limit to the town's elasticity."