The changes to the local plan and their significance
St Helens Council has recently announced work on a new local plan for the borough. A local plan is a significant document; it has legal powers and sets out a number of things including commercial development plans. The council had already gone through a comprehensive exercise in 2012 setting out the overarching aims for the borough social, development housing. Councils normally undertake these exercises on 15 year cycles the current plan was intended to serve the borough to 2027. The consultation period for the 2012 plan took several years, the public were consulted, developers, adjacent local authorities, statutory bodies, strategic partners and of course central government in a series of hearings. Normally these plans run the 15 year full cycle, but in this case the council are writing off much of this expensive plan after just four years..
But before we explain the what for? We must explain some background to the why?
November 2015, just three years after signing off its 2012 15 year core strategy St Helens council cabinet resolved to dissolve its current strategy. Described in a brief public consultation document issued later in January 2016 the council stresses changes in market need for commercial development land, need for land for housing together with an obscure administrative reason appertaining to consolidation of documents as justification. The assertion over commercial development land was backed by evidence provided by consultants employed by the council.
The existing adopted (2012 plan) had only minimal green belt land release for commercial development other than the Parkside site which would be only by subject to special circumstances examined by inspector in public enquiry. The new plan had a proposal to release very large areas of green belt in advance to attract developers speculatively or in collaboration with existing developers.
Why are the council doing this now and going against their own current adopted strategy?
For this we need to re-wind a little. St Helens Council had for many years a plan for a Strategic Rail Freight Terminal at Parkside the councils current adopted plan, the 2012 plan had at its core the plan for Freight Terminal funded by a large private sector developer. Very little else from a commercial development standpoint was in that strategy. However the Strategic Rail Freight business model was difficult to implement and the developer Pro Logis withdrew its application. In the intervening time the council had done little to develop a mixed economy for the overall borough in the previous decades, leaving itself exposed. Meanwhile in 2012, a bombshell, the coalition government made significant changes to local government funding. Chancellor Osborne scraping the core grant system but allowing councils to keep all of business rates. This now left a significant gap in local government revenue funding for some councils, in particular for areas like St Helens MBC which had not, for whatever reason, previously developed a balanced economy.
For evidence of change of strategy we need to look at a set of council cabinet minutes from June 2013, shortly after the adoption of the current 2012 strategy.
Extract from council minutes June 2013
These innocuous minutes are very significant. Green Belt land is protected and has an overall presumption of permanence in planning. Unless special circumstances can be demonstrated, that are unique, and the public interest is protected. These circumstances tend to be unusual, normally for items such as major infrastructure projects by public enquiry overseen by independent planning inspector. They also have to show need that cannot be met elsewhere.
The council are claiming planners are deterred by this situation. Their solution then it appears is to use their powers under core strategy planning to remove the land from green belt thereby removing this problem altogether.
Under these circumstances in the event of a future planning application the land would no longer be green belt. Rather than an independent planning inspector and public protection the future applications under what was green belt would not be subject to scrutiny by inspector but would be via local planning application (LPA) which would be approved by the council itself. It is not clear whether this is legally sound, the council will have to get this overall strategic plan approved “as sound” by government inspector in 2018. But it is without doubt grossly against the spirit of the exceptional circumstances rule and green belt principles generally.
In the 2012 hearings into the 2012 core strategy adopted in October 2012 in July Peel Holdings made representations into developing the green belt land around junction 23 for a logistics park. This was opposed then by St Helens Council on environmental and green belt grounds. The council felt so strongly about it then they employed a barrister to fight their case.
Yet just one year later from this point we see a dramatic change of direction by the council, quite why we can’t be sure but it’s a possibility the major change in local authority government funding is a factor, the Peel Holdings representation in 2012 might have been an influence.
See the OLV article here
Link to Peel’s Logistics website here
The current planning law, The National Planning Policy Framework here - These are the principles of sustainable development enshrined in the governments planning laws again enacted in 2012 at the time of adoption of the council’s current plan. Quote from this act from the minister (Greg Clark) (who created the current act) “sustainable means better lives for ourselves, don’t mean worse lives for future generations”. Hold that quote in your head for now.
The public sector funding and facilitation of private sector developers needs
In addition to this change of green belt policy direction we also saw another important change.
Prior to 2012 the policy of the council was largely private sector developers funding developments themselves. We are now seeing the council using public funds to either directly to support developers or indirectly use funds to facilitate groundwork for developers.
The first and most obvious was in early 2014 when the council provided (see arrangements here) £6 million of public funds to Langtree Developments to purchase the Parkside Site in a joint venture arrangement with Langtree. You could also argue the current exercise to develop the new local plan is entirely for the purpose of facilitating commercial logistics development for developers. Its aim is almost exclusively the removal of green belt land for the purpose of offering to developers green belt for commercial development it appears to have no other purpose from our reading of the documents issued by the council in January 2016.
The cost of the 2015 to 2018 plan to the council is not just the direct cost of creating the new local plan we must also take account of the expenditure in creating the 2012 plan which is soon to be a redundant asset. Given we (the public) paid for it we believe we have a right to know how much it cost. OLV made a freedom of information request to the council requesting cost of 2012 plan and of 2016 / 8 plan. The initial response from the council was they do not carry that information and it’s too complex and expensive in resource to calculate.
OLV appealed, sending a revised request for the 2018 plan only, on the basis the council must have a planned cost of the program on something it plans to spend money on in the near future. OLV eventually received this information from the council, the cost 2015 to 2018 was £310k. Of which £170k was external consultancy £82k of which will be the tender earlier this year on the chest portal for studies into the road network and road logistics studies around Newton and Haydock, the remainder unknown. £80k is the government inspector’s fees. The remaining £60k is promotion materials, site inspections and sundry costs.
We will of course never know the cost of the 2012 plan.
The governments planning framework the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) re-enforced one of the key principles of planning law that of local plans being the first point of planning decisions and hence planning applications. Planning applications are aligned with local plans and hence often council local plans (and local infrastructure provided by the council) are in effect the early stages of commercial planning applications. Introduced in 2012 (that year again) along with the principles of sustainable development. It’s no accident the council are developing a new generation of a developer friendly plan with all sustainable transport boxes ticked (new cycleway / pathways) and preferably in future years no green belt to get in the way of developers having been allocated out in the 2018 local plan.
The 2015 to 2018 has recently undergone a public consultation on the scope, principles and rationale of the plan. The next phase we understand is currently expected late autumn 2016 when we will find out the exact land area that is to be the green belt land removal. This is known as the call for sites or preferred options phase. The public will be allowed to formally comment on the proposals from the call for sites / prefeered options as part of the planning process, public comments will be submitted in due course to the government inspector.
The job of the government inspector will be to decide (not is the plan a good one or not that’s not his or her role) but is the plan “sound” under the government’s planning laws, in particular the principles of sustainable development.
Remember the national planning minister’s quote?
The land potentially to be removed from green belt
Where are these areas of land the council are planning to remove from green belt we must wait and see in a few months.
However we think the land will be Newton and Haydock between junction 22 and 23.
So why do we think this?
The councils supporting land need documents in January 2016 refer almost exclusively to the desirability of land by the M6 in Newton and Haydock for logistics operations. OLV reported earlier this year of the position on the land between Ashton Road and Vista Road there is now no doubt about this with Peel Holdings logistics recently putting an advertisement on their website claiming the land is being promoted through the planning system. What planning system might that be we wonder? Then we have Bericote Properties who are already submitting a planning application (Ref P/2016/0608/HYBR) on green belt by junction 23 recently featured in a residents protest on BBC North West Tonight. And of course impending Parkside. All these sites are green belt adding these together, Peel Holdings 300 acres, Bericote 90 acres, Parkside based on 2012 St Helens MBC core strategy 380 acres plus of course others (as yet unannounced) in the Haydock areas.
But for now let’s calculate what we know of, at the moment that gives a total of 770 acres of green belt at risk in Newton and Haydock in the corridor M6 Junction 22 to 23 for logistics over and above the logistics that already exists at Haydock and nearby Winwick and Omega much of which is “to let” or on unallocated brown field.
It seems pointless here to point out the environmental impact for Newton and Haydock should further logistics on this scale be forthcoming, to the reader that surely is self evident. The term nimby is often pointed at people who object to harmful developments in their area, preferring, as the jibe goes, they were in someone else’s backyard. This is a very exceptional set of circumstances that will directly affect everyone in two towns with a population of 33,000 people, plus the adjacent towns. Of particular concern is the health of local people already due to the traffic borne air quality the air in the area now not being at safe levels and managed by the council with a statutory air quality plan. The council are not arbiters of who is allowed to breathe clean air in the borough or to be entitled to local green space. Being a Nimby is objecting to something like spoiling your view, encasing two towns in warehousing and putting heath and well being in danger, is an altogether different magnitude.
The impact on loss of green space, wildlife and the well being of local people will be pretty obvious without the need to describe any further here. Green Belt in the local area to all intents and purposes will be elimated given the scale proposed.
The St Helens Council Leader in the most recent version of St Helens First the magazine of St Helens Council had a headline article titled “The wheels of fortune” this held out that logistics would be the boroughs road to riches. The assertion is that this strategy will enrich the wider borough and lead to increased employment in particular relieving the worklessness in parts of St Helens and this is the primary purpose behind the strategy.
That this strategy will lead to employment in the logistics operations locations developed on green belt land is not open to question because clearly it will.
Employment Yield – Will the domination of Logistics create more or less overall empoloyment ?
Will this create an economic multiplier in the borough or an economic barrier to wider economic development and hence overall employment prospects? Will this create a range and diversity of opportunities for local people particularly young people starting new careers?
What is the evidence logistics will have the impact the council leader is asserting?
We have had big logistics sites already in the local area for many years, if we have pockets of worklessness why have logistics not already solved this problem? Logistics is a very competitive industry it’s a volume business with tight margins. Unit cost is critical, for that reason logistics operators shift sites to obtain optimum operating conditions it’s also part of the reason it has a reputation for zero hours contracts and poor terms and conditions. In the interests of balance this is not always the case though many of the logistics companies are household names, reputable companies which treat their employees well. It’s also not true to say all work on these sites is low skilled, logistics is a highly technological operation. The basic model is storing goods and moving goods in as rapid a turnaround as possible within the “just in time concept” but to achieve this requires complex operating processes. Logistics has long extensively employed robotics but to date these have been fairly crude binary programmes. Robotics though is undergoing a new revolution RPA (Robotics Process Automation) the difference in this technology from that which occurred before is it’s cognitive. That is it has a limited reasoning ability from crude metabots all the way to artificial intelligence. This gives it the ability to scale and allocate workloads and can interact with external physical equipment. The implications for complex but relatively linear processes like moving stored goods is obvious there is almost no limit to what can be automated. Even driving the lorries is a possibility.
The only reference in the local press so far to the St helens Council green belt removal was recently in the Liverpool Echo here
It’s very likely (if it’s not already the case) modern any logistics operators in this area will employ this new technology extensively, the politicians assertions these operations will employ large numbers of local people are likely to prove unfounded. We would expect in the near future these sites to be heavily automated dark sites (some sites are called dark sites because lighting is not always neccessary there are few humans) employing little unskilled labour and be staffed by a few highly skilled engineers most of whom are likely to be employed to national service providers.
See utube film of robots here in an Amazon site.
This policy of saturation warehousing along the J22 to J23 M6 corridor has other implications in terms of employment. Effective transport and communication is seen as an essential component of regional economic growth. This was clearly laid out in the government’s strategy for regeneration of the North West and North East. Motorway congestion was specifically highlighted as a reason for regional decline the government gave examples along the North Manchester M62 corridor. The M6 by J22 to J23 was also included in this study and plans are in place to transform this into a smart motorway using hard shoulder running. The government’s intention is not to use this as capacity to facilitate warehousing traffic but to reduce the existing congestion to generate economic growth in the area. It naturally follows to negate the benefit of the future smart motorway will negatively impact economic growth in the area and reduce future employment prospects in the area.
If the “wheels of fortune” for the St Helens borough are to be dominated by warehousing and logistics.
For future employees what happens if your preference of employment is not this industry? What if the above predictions of highly automated dark sites employing very few people are accurate, where in the future borough is employment to come from? By setting out a single dimensional strategy of warehousing and diverting strategy from a more diverse economy it may well be any gain from the building on green belt is overwhelmed by the negative congestion impact on the borough’s economy. The short term environmental devastation on Newton and Haydock will not only be for no gain but might actually deliver a negative economic outcome in the long term. The impact will be felt by future generations.
See very recent BBC news that is very relevant to this situation here
The residents of Haydock opposing the Bericote development complain about the injustice of developing logistics sites in the area when the area is already saturated with existing operations many with “to let” outside. It’s important to remember these vacant sites just a few years ago were the “must have” developments on green belt. The council claim these are now not favoured by the market, a claim supported by external consultants the council funded. The consultants are unlikely to say anything else! However that process works in reverse by claiming brown field is not market favoured and opening up huge areas of green belt to developers the council are naturally depressing the market for these brown field sites. It is a policy of deliberately driving brown belt to be vacant and forcing development on green belt. This is complete madness and inverse of sustainable planning law. The preponderance of logistics sites with “to let” signs is also simply a demonstration of operators propensity to shift sites to the lowest costs, few of the numbers of jobs claimed are new to the area they are simply new at that site, often relocating from a few miles away. Logistics is also notoriously poor in the supply chain creating a poor multiplier compared with other industries with longer supply chains and mix of end customers.
We also cannot get away without mentioning the M6. The M6 between junction J22 and J23 is one of the busiest motorways in the North West of England if not the country. Every month 1.5 million vehicles flow across this narrow stretch of motorway alone, every month. It also is proximate to the M62 and M56 both of which flow and weave into the M6 in this region and both are busy motorways in their own right. At peak time all three are gridlocked daily from Thelwall to Junction 26. This has impacts both on commuters, on the growth of the regional economy and of nearby towns Warrington and Wigan. We would like to remind readers who live in Newton and Haydock of the air quality impact 1.5 million vehicles driving past their homes each and every month. Of course it’s the M6 people have to expect this but given these constraints, in this area, is this really the best area to site at least multiple big road to road freight terminals?
And finally we come to another set of people, a forgotten set of people. That is the silent vast majority those who commute to work in nearby towns and cities, those who rise at 6am to try to beat the traffic. These people largely keep the council in existence with council tax and other contributions. The existing congestion today is making the journey to work almost as exhausting as the day’s work itself. This is particularly so in the corridors M62 Birchwood and M6 Thelwall to Orrell. Who speaks for these people in the saturation warehousing plan? What additional impact will this have on their lives?
This will also have an economic impact and a disincentive for new companies to locate in the area if it has an impact on the quality of life, health and well being of their workforce and of their ability to operate as a business.
The emerging plans from St Helens Council are very worrying indeed from an environmental perspective but also have big very concerns over long term economic strategy for the borough.
This might have significant implications for future employment not just in the volume of opportunities but also in the range and diversity of opportunities available to people in the borough in the future. Will congestion by the M6 corridor make future St Helens a hard place to do business will the job creators of the future locate elsewhere in the North West ? leaving St Helens a series of dark logistics sites or worse vacant sites?
We accept the current predicament the council is in forced to generate new streams of business rates to fund future public services. But there are many options to achieve that not least creating a strong diverse economy in the borough as a whole.
We also must not lose sight of the need to ensure a future St Helens is a pleasant and healthy place to live for all its residents. We do not accept some areas are expendable.
From a council just 4 years ago which were opposing large scale green belt developments in the area on environmental grounds now seem to be in favour of almost wholesale release or at least two outlying towns in the borough.
What Happens Next?
These proposals of the council are at the early stages. The initial scoping phase where the broad rationale was outlined has passed but further iterations and examinations will follow with the next stage “call for sites” with the expectations this iteration will be late autumn 2016, possibly November.
In this phase of the plan the public are to be told what areas of the boroughs green belt the council are asking be removed from protected status and hence exposed for commercial development. This is by no means a “done deal “there is a long way to go yet.
The public are entitled to submit representations into this process and the council will be challenged by the public, other stakeholders and ultimately the government, that their 2018 is a sound viable plan.
OLV promises to keep you informed.