Logistics in the Green Belt

Last week saw the close of the latest in a series of five called-in planning inquiries into strategic logistics development in the Green Belt, as developers and Local Planning Authorities seek to maximise the development potential of key sites in the North West with excellent locations.  Kings Chambers has been at the forefront of all these inquires, with representations being made by a host of Chambers’ barristers, all recognised for their expertise in this area.  

Despite the obvious parallels between the inquiries, the four to date have showcased a range of different skill and talent from the Kings Chambers’ stable.

Kings’ Ten

Of the twelve barristers involved to date, ten have been from Kings Chambers.

All five inquiries concern the development of land to create large buildings for B2/B8 use, primarily aimed at the logistics sector. The first inquiry took place in November 2020, with Jonathan Easton promoting the use of a site in Wingates, Bolton.  Stephanie Hall represented Bolton Borough Council and both parties were keen to see the site developed.  Jonathan Easton (for the developer) gave a rousing closing speech that drew on the Government’s high-profile “levelling-up” agenda, whilst Stephanie Hall sought to secure the best deal for Bolton Borough Council through the planning obligations attached to the development.

Next up was Symmetry Park in Wigan, in which the developer, Trista Symmetry, was represented by David Manley QC and the Local Authority was represented by Alan Evans.  This inquiry revealed the true depth to the data behind the plans, with both Counsel skilfully advancing employment land data, take up rates and forecast figures.  Adding to this already complex mix was the data and policy objectives of the emerging GMSF[1], in which Kings Chambers play a key role. 

Two of the remaining three inquiries took place in early 2021. The first was a hybrid application made to St Helens and Warrington Borough Councils, for the development of the former Parkside Colliery along with an associated link road, the Parkside Link Road, aimed at opening future phases of the Parkside development, including a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange at the axis of the Chat Moss Line and the West Coast Main Line.  In addition to Giles Cannock QC representing St Helens Borough Council, John Barrett was promoting the Parkside Link Road and Sarah Reid represented Warrington Borough Council.  Persuasive arguments were put forward by all Counsel on the regeneration benefits these schemes would bring to areas suffering multiple deprivation.

The latest inquiry, Haydock Point, closed this week and concerned the development of a transport logistics building located at Junction 23 of the M6.  St Helens Borough Council was represented by Giles Cannock QC, assisted by Mark Howells, and the developer, Peel L&P Ltd, was represented by Paul Tucker QC, Head of Kings Chambers, assisted by Philip Robson.  The site was promoted on the basis that it could deliver a 1m sqft strategic logistics hub at the junction of the M6 and A580 (East Lancs Rd). After 6 days, the inquiry closed with the respective parties making detailed submissions on how the need for more logistics floorspace, in an industry the NPPG considers to be "critical", and the associated employment/regeneration benefits should be balanced against landscape and visual impact and harm to the Green Belt. This balance of Very Special Circumstances will lie at the heart of all these inquiries and there is no doubt that the industry will be keen to understand how the Secretary of State will determine these applications/appeals, given the very strong market which currently exists.

Indeed, a fifth inquiry for the Omega site commences in April 2021, on a site which forms a logical extension west of Omega. Giles Cannock QC and Mark Howells again promote the site on behalf of St Helens MBC, with the site forming part of the LPA's emerging Local Plan.  

London Calling

All five inquiries have been called for determination by the Secretary of State, and because of their national significance, it is easy to see why. As structural changes to consumer buying practices continue to drive the growth in e-commerce across the UK, there is increasing demand for large scale logistics buildings that can accommodate scales of economy and the increasingly advanced technology required by the industry. Undoubtedly, such behavioural changes, have been accelerated by Brexit and Covid, probably irreversibly so.

Within the North West, the M6 corridor from Warrington and Wigan is considered to be the ‘goldilocks zone’ for much of this logistics development.  It has outstanding road connectivity and there is a huge demand for employment.  This fits squarely within the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda to tackle regional disparities. 

In addition, there are clear national policies, contained in the NPPF and the Transport Decarbonisation Plan that support the transformation of the logistics sector from diesel guzzling trucks of old into zero-carbon transport, supported by the latest in technology and computer science. Clearly, the North West has a huge amount to gain from such nationally significant ambitions.

But there is a cost, and it is one that is close to people hearts and has a history of being highly political: Green Belt.  All five of the developments subject to the called-in inquiries are in Green Belt land.  As such, under paragraph 143 of the NPPF[2] the Secretary of State must determine, which of the developments, if any, can demonstrate ‘very special circumstances’.   Such circumstances will not exist unless ‘the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm resulting from the proposal, is clearly outweighed by other considerations[3]’.

Very special circumstances’ is an often-misconceived concept. Objectors of such development understandably wonder ‘what is so special about a big truck shed?’.  In the planning world, however, it has long been recognised that ordinary everyday need such as employment, education, or housing, can be very special in the right set of circumstances.  It is the totality of all the circumstances, in terms of planning harm, green belt harm and planning benefits that give rise to ‘very special circumstances’.

As noted in the latest inquiry, Haydock Point, this is often a ‘very finely balanced’ exercise and it is often hard from the outside looking in to see why certain developments gain permission, whilst others do not.

During the four inquiries that have taken place so far, the benefits associated with each development were clearly identifiable.  Given the close regional proximity the developments and notwithstanding the arguments put forward by individual proponents of each scheme, there are undoubtedly comparable benefits.  This is particularly true of employment opportunities and regeneration, which would benefit a great deal of the North West.

Instead, the essential issue for the determination of ‘very special circumstances’ rests on the other side of the balancing exercise – the harm.  The harm caused to Green Belt is a hugely significant part of this, which is measured in terms of the impact on landscape and visual openness along with the extent to which the development undermines the purposes of Green Belt land[4]. Each of these factors is unique to each development site and the development proposed. 

Although, in each inquiry the parties have been keen to stress that each scheme stands on its own merits, which they do, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the different sites when assessing ‘very special circumstances’.  Although the Secretary of State has not suggested he intends to draw such comparisons between the five developments in a ‘beauty contest’ with one lucky winner, at least the first four inquiries are being reported back to the Secretary of State before any decisions are made.  Whatever, the approach adopted by the Secretary of State, residents, business, community groups and planners will all be keen to see the results and the reasons given for each decision.  

 

[1] Greater Manchester Spatial Framework

[2] National Planning Policy Framework 2018

[3] NPPF Paragraph 144

[4] NPPF Paragraph 133

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