A vision for a huge industrial, retail and leisure development on land close to a major motorway junction in Central Lancashire has been given the green light.Advertisement
The approval of plans for the Cuerden site in South Ribble – near where the M65 meets the M6 – goes some way towards ending the uncertainty that has surrounded the sprawling plot since a previous proposal to build an IKEA store there collapsed in 2018.
However, a meeting of Lancashire County Council’s development control committee – at which the new “Lancashire Central” blueprint was accepted – heard that there are still “large blank spaces” in the draft design of the scheme, which will not be finalised until later in the planning process.
The outline application – brought jointly by the county council itself and Maple Grove Developments Limited – did set out much of what is expected to be built on the 71 per cent of the 65-hectare plot that the local authority owns.
The site is almost half-a-mile wide – running from from the M6 and A49 Wigan Road in the east to Stanifield Lane in the west – and extends for more than a third of a mile from its northern boundary with the A582 Lostock Lane down to Stoney Lane.
The lion’s share of it will be given over to the creation of an indicative 174,000 square metres of industrial, storage and office space – along with retail units, food and drink outlets, a drive-through restaurant, car showrooms, a leisure centre, gym, health facility, creche and 116 new homes.
The applicants claim that their plans will create up to 5,600 full-time jobs once the development is complete – expected to be in seven years – and 2,400 temporary jobs during the construction phase. In total, they estimate that the occupied site would see an extra £390m a year injected into the local economy.
Paul Newton, the agent for the application, described it as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver a dynamic, sustainable, best-in-class development that will generate significant economic, social and environmental benefits”.
While County Hall planning officers said that the lack of specifics about the shape of the scheme was normal at the outset of such a major project, the dearth of detail – particularly over environmental issues – split the committee down the middle. A proposal to defer the decision until more information was forthcoming was defeated only by the casting vote of the chair.
A question was also raised about whether the plans would rule out a new Royal Preston Hospital ever being built somewhere on the wider site – with the advice from council officers being that it would not.
Meanwhile, a representative of the property developer that owns the remainder of the plot warned committee members that ongoing legal action the firm was taking against the county council – as revealed by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed earlier this week – meant that they should not be making a decision on the matter yet anyway.
However, that issue went almost entirely undiscussed during a near 90-minute debate on the proposal – much of which turned on the impact of the development on the veteran trees that can be found across the site.
Almost all of the tree coverage comes from oak and sycamore species, with mature hedge trees having been mapped at the location as far back as 1848 – and some of the examples being described as “irreplaceable” in the county council planning department report presented to the committee.
The permission requested by the applicants was outline in all respects other than the full permission sought for access points – to be taken from the M65 terminus roundabout, Wigan Road and Stanifield Lane – and some “strategic” elements of the landscaping plans for the site.
It was acknowledged that some trees would be lost as part of the access arrangements, although South Ribble Borough Council’s local plan requires an on-site replacement of two trees for every one whose loss is “unavoidable”.
However, committee members were concerned about the fate of those trees that did not lie in the path of the access roads, but whose future, they felt, was left blowing in the breeze.
According to a condition imposed on the outline permission, no other trees shall be removed unless or until the county council approves a statement setting out the “the nature and extent of the proposed impacts or losses, alternatives explored to avoid or minimise those impacts or losses and a demonstration of why those alternatives were not feasible”.
The planning department report notes that South Ribble’s local plan also requires development within the borough to be designed so as to ensure that existing landscape features “are retained” – although there may be some instances where it is considered “acceptable” to remove them.
Committee members Julie Berry and David Westley both described what they were being asked to agree to about the trees as “a leap of faith”, with Cllr Westley adding that it would be “ a crying shame” if any more than currently proposed were cut down without the committee’s say so.
Principal planning officer Rob Hope said that any such future request would have to “come back before the council” for approval – or otherwise – as part of the so-called “reserved matters” applications that would be required to request permission for aspects of the scheme that were not set out in the outline application being considered by the committee.
While Cllr Westley was satisfied with that explanation, fellow committee member Steve Holgate highlighted a litany of concerns listed by the county council’s own landscaping service about what it suggested were deficiencies in some of the information provided.
He said that he was “embarrassed” by it and that it was “hard to believe” that such a situation had arisen. Raising his own concerns about the commitment of the applicants to a net gain in biodiversity on the site, County Cllr Holgate requested that a plan to achieve it, along with landscaping and construction environmental management plans – all required to be arrested at the reserved matters stage – be brought to the committee before even outline permission was granted.
However, the county council’s head of planning, Andrew Mullaney, said that imposing such a requirement would be “unreasonable”.
“A substantial part of this [application] is a blank sheet of paper…[and] it’s subject to matters which are reserved for more detail to come forward [later].
“That’s a normal everyday thing in the planning system – it’s not unusual in the planning world. What is unusual is to demand that detail for an application upfront,” Mr. Mullaney said.
Rob Hope added that many of the landscaping service’s complaints had arisen from “illustrative” information which had later been removed from the outline application, adding that any outstanding issues had been responded to.
County Cllr Holgate forced a vote on whether the committee could defer its decision until the information he wanted to see – specifically, a biodiversity net gain plan – was produced.
The result was tied, with committee chair Matthew Maxwell-Scott using his casting ballot to defeat County Cllr Holgate’s suggestion, having earlier said that it would be “absurd” to “demand every single plan ahead of [an application] being approved or not”.
The vote on whether to grant outline permission was carried by six votes to five, with one abstention.
In the 2010s, the Cuerden site was often touted as a possible location for a so-called “super hospital” to serve the whole of Central Lancashire, when plans were being drawn up for the future of healthcare in the sub-region.
More recently, the new hospitals programme has secured funding for a replacement Royal Preston to be built somewhere within a ten-mile radius of the current Sharoe Green Lane site in the early-mid 2030s.
As the LDRS revealed in the summer, a preferred site has been identified by NHS bosses, but no details have yet been made public – and other possibilities had, at that time, not been ruled out.
County council development control committee member Eddie Pope wanted reassurance that the logistics and retail proposal that he and his colleagues were being asked to approve on a large part of the Cuerden site would not preclude the broader area from hosting a new hospital facility if that opportunity should arise in the future.
“I think we need to have the vision to look forward and see what could be developed on this particular [site],” County Cllr Pope said.
County Hall’s head of planning, Andrew Mullaney, told the meeting that the authority did not have “any idea about any hospital proposal”
However, he added: “[Lancashire Central] is a long-term development – it’s not going to start being built in full over the next months or even years. So if something does come forward, which seeks to complement this or even replace something [that’s been approved] that’s something [the committee] could consider if we are the planning authority for that.”
‘Don’t lock us out of our own land’
Brookhouse Group Limited, the property developer that owns the 29 per cent of the Cuerden site not in Lancashire County Council’s control, wrote to the authority 24 hours before the development control committee met to consider the outline application and urged County Hall to defer the decision.
As the LDRS revealed on Tuesday, the two parties are locked in a legal dispute over the way in which the county council selected its development partner for the Cuerden project – Bamber Bridge-based Maple Grove Developments Limited.
An attempt by the authority to get Brookhouse’s claim against it struck out failed at an initial hearing last month. That means that the full case will now be heard at a later date, unless the county council successfully applies for permission to appeal the decision – a move that the LDRS understands is being considered.
Simon Ricketts, representing Brookhouse at the committee meeting, said that one of the “potential consequences” of that legal action was that Lancashire County Council’s joint planning application with Maple Grove should not be considered by the authority‘s own independent development control committee, but the planning committee of South Ribble Borough Council.
Irrespective of that issue, Mr. Ricketts also called for the county council to enter into a planning agreement that would prevent the authority from holding Brookhouse “to ransom” over access to the firm’s portion of the wider Cuerden plot, which was the subject of a masterplan for the whole area, requiring its “comprehensive” development.
“We’ve given examples…from across the country of where this has been done. We don’t understand why the council is refusing to agree to this provision – I can only think of one reason and it is not becoming of this authority,” Mr. Ricketts said.
County Cllr Eddie Pope was the only member to alight upon the two points, seeking clarity on “the legal position” and adding:
“This is a massive decision, it’s not a minor thing. In terms of the legal framework, are we going to block some other developer from coming into this part of the masterplan [area]? he asked.
Committee chair Matthew Maxwell-Scott said that the advice was that it was “legally appropriate” for the matter to be considered at the meeting.
Meanwhile, the report of the county council’s planning department noted that the design of the Lancashire Central proposal “still maintains the opportunity to link through to the wider site at a later date”.
However, the document added that there was no obligation within the South Ribble local plan or the adopted masterplan to place “a burden on the applicant, in its capacity as landowner, to grant rights over its own land”.
‘Big boost for Lancashire’
Speaking after approval for Lancashire Central was granted, Aidy Riggott, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for economic development and growth, said: “These are exciting proposals for this key strategic employment site in the heart of the county and we’re pleased that we gained planning approval. The site is regionally significant, vital to the place-shaping agenda and will deliver major economic outcomes for Lancashire.
“Higher skilled jobs with competitive salaries will boost employment growth and create a quality place to work, live and visit, making a real difference to the lives and wellbeing of people in Lancashire.”
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