There are calls for a decision over the future of a site in South Ribble – once earmarked for an IKEA store – to be deferred until the conclusion of a legal battle.Advertisement
Revised plans for the sprawling plot at Cuerden, close to where the M65 and M6 meet, are due to be put before Lancashire County Council’s development control committee later today (December 6).
The authority is itself the applicant seeking permission from the independent committee of county councillors for a scheme that would see the creation of retail units, food and drink outlets, a drive-through restaurant, car showrooms, a leisure centre, health facility and more than 100 new homes – although industrial, storage and office space would make up the majority of the proposed development.
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Known as “Lancashire Central”, the project rose from the ashes of the IKEA plan, which collapsed when the furniture giant walked away from building a new store at the location in 2018.
However, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that Lancashire County Council last month lost the first stage of a High Court challenge to the way in which it selected a developer to work with on making the new vision a reality, should the application be approved. Opposition Labour group leader Azhar Ali wants the planning process halted as a result.
In a letter sent to the authority’s chief executive, Angie Ridgwell, on Monday, he said that consideration of the application should be deferred “pending resolution of any litigation”.
County Cllr Ali also cautioned against “decision making that is flawed or where there is a chance of further legal challenges which would damage our reputation and/or cost the [taxpayer] more monies”.
The High Court decision saw Lancashire County Council ordered to pay almost £65,000 in costs to the claimant in the case, Brookhouse Group Limited.
The Manchester-based property development firm owns 29 per cent of the overall Cuerden Strategic Regional Investment Site, with the county council in control of the remainder. The scheme to be considered by the development control committee sits entirely within the local authority-owned area of land.
However, Brookhouse wanted to contest the process by which Lancashire County Council entered into a development agreement last year with Maple Grove Developments Limited, which is headquartered in Bamber Bridge. For its part, the county council argued that the challenge had not been brought within a legally-defined time limit.
The judge in the case, Martin Bowdery KC, found in favour of Brookhouse – a decision which means the challenge can now be heard in full.
The LDRS understands that a legal representative for Brookhouse will also call for the matter to be deferred when they address the development control committee. The firm has also lodged a series of objections to the application itself, including over the provision of access to its portion of the wider 65-hectare plot.
A spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said: “The application will be decided in the usual way at Wednesday’s development control meeting.
“In line with our usual policies, legal advice has been taken to ensure it will be determined in line with all relevant procedures and will be lawful.”
What is the development dispute about?
According to details contained within the High Court judgement in the case, Lancashire County Council made a development agreement with Maple Grove Developments Limited in July 2022 for the firm to carry out works in relation to the delivery of the Cuerden site.
The authority claims that the decision fell within the scope of a separate procurement contract that it awarded almost a decade earlier to Eric Wright Group Limited, Maple Grove’s parent company, following a competitive tendering process.
That led to a so-called “strategic partnership agreement” (SPA) between the two, which the county council argues not only permits, but expressly envisages it entering into further project-specific development agreements – either with Eric Wright Group or Maple Grove. Crucially, however, County Hall claims that these can be made without the need for any further competitive bidding for the work in question.
Earlier this year, Brookhouse Group Limited mounted a legal challenge under public contract regulations, seeking a ‘declaration of ineffectiveness’, which, if granted, would mean that the contract entered into with Maple Grove for the Cuerden site would be cancelled from the date the declaration was issued.
The first stage of the case turned on whether, as the county council argued, Brookhouse had missed a 30-day window within which it had to bring its case.
The firm issued its claim on 20th January, 2023, but the local authority contended that the 30-day clock should have started ticking some four months earlier, on 22nd September, 2022, when it sent a letter to Brookhouse outlining what it said were the reasons that the county council was entitled to enter into the development agreement with Maple Grove – under the provisions of the SPA – without conducting any further competitive tender processes.
However, Brookhouse claimed that a longer, six-month window should apply, starting the day after the contract was entered into on 29th July, 2022.
That, the company argued, is because the 30-day timeframe applies only when reasons for a contract award have been provided to unsuccessful candidates or tenderers – which was not a status conferred on Brookhouse or any other party, precisely because there had been no bidding process as per the SPA.
In a 35-page judgement, Martin Bowdery KC, sitting as a deputy high court judge, concluded that the fact that the reasons supplied to Brookhouse were not requested by, nor supplied to, a tenderer or a candidate was “fatal” to the time limitation defence mounted by Lancashire County Council.
He also rejected an argument by the authority that the 30-day rule would apply in the case of a “would-be candidate”, for which he said there was no reference or definition in the relevant public procurement regulations.
Mr. Bowdery wrote that he was “satisfied” that the defence relied upon by the county council offers “no realistic grounds for defeating the claim” brought by Brookhouse and so “should be struck out”.
Unless the county council successfully appeals that ruling, the Brookhouse claim can now be heard in full.
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