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Issue over new school places could derail plans for Cottam Parkway railway station

Posted on - 11th June, 2024 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Cottam, Education, Preston News, Redevelopment, Schools, Transport
Cottam Parkway CGI
Cottam Parkway CGI

A wrangle over school places could put the brakes on plans for a new railway station in suburban Preston.

It comes after councillors rejected a bid to build almost 300 new homes in the vicinity of the long-awaited Cottam Parkway facility, which was finally given the green light last year – a decade after it was first mooted.

The housing proposal would have seen two new estates built either side of the railway line, to the west of Lea Road.

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Crucially, as part of that blueprint, developer Story Homes planned to transfer 1.4 hectares of land – one of several parcels required – to Lancashire County Council for just £1 to help facilitate the development of the new station, which will offer journey times of just five minutes into Preston city centre and 20 minutes to Blackpool.

However, Preston City Council’s planning committee refused permission for the new properties after hearing that the housebuilder had said it could not stump up the financial contribution being demanded by the county authority to cover the cost of the additional school places that could be generated by the proposal – a sum ranging between £1.7m and £2.7m.  The firm argued that it would make the project financially unviable.

Cottam Parkway site entrance of Lea Road
Cottam Parkway site entrance of Lea Road

City council planners had recommended committee members approve the housing application in spite of the lack of education funding being offered by the developer – and the fact that the two plots of housing land are located in open countryside, where development would not usually be allowed in any case under local planning policies.

In a report presented to the committee, they concluded that the station would – irrespective of the new homes – lead to “irreversible, significant changes to the role…and appearance of the open countryside in this part of Preston, to the extent that it will alter its rural character”.   It was also judged that the site was on the fringe of the countryside and could be considered a “sustainable urban extension to Preston”.

Although that assessment was largely accepted by members, several baulked at the absence of a contribution to the bill for creating the 98 primary school and 39 secondary school places County Hall says would be required as a result of the new housing.

Committee member John Rutter said he had “grave reservations” about approving the plans, telling the meeting that there was “already a crisis in Cottam and North West Preston” over school places.

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) has previously documented, there has been no confirmation of when – or whether – two new primary schools and a secondary school promised for North West Preston will be delivered, as per a masterplan for the development of up to 6,000 homes in the area drawn up back in 2017.

With the effective gifting of the station land being presented as one of the benefits of the scheme that justified the absence of any education cash, deputy committee chair Sara Holmes contrasted the value of what is currently an agricultural plot – which she calculated to be worth £27,000 – with the millions needed to cover school costs.

She said it did not match “in any way” the amount that could be expected to be provided under a Central Lancashire-wide planning strategy – and added that the result could be children living in the new homes having to be sent to school in other parts of the city.

Committee member Harry Landless said he would always usually “shudder” at the prospect of allowing countryside development, which he said happened “more often than it should”.  However, in this case, he added that he could see “the logic” of doing so – because of the prior agreement to build the station and the changes to the area that would follow.

Planning officer James Mercer said the existence of a “specific set of circumstances” and “material considerations” had been considered to justify going against the city council’s own development plan.

But a majority of members were unconvinced and voted six-to-two against accepting the officer recommendation for approval, with one abstention.

The committee then had to decide whether it wanted to make its decision one of outright refusal or to defer the matter until a later date. Cllr Homes said the strength of the first vote meant that the second should be taken on a proposal to kick the plans out altogether.

Although the committee’s disquiet had largely been focussed on the issue of funding for school places, that specific concern was absent from the reasons drawn up by planning officers to explain the refusal.

Instead, that explanation – which will be the basis of the authority’s defence against any appeal by the developer – centred on the fact that the proposed development was not of the type “deemed permissible in the open countryside” under the Preston Local Plan and was also at odds with a spatial strategy set for Central Lancashire as a whole.

The material considerations surrounding the station development were not considered sufficient to outweigh the conflict with local planning policy, it was suggested.

Cllr Holmes accepted the proposed wording and the housing plans were refused by seven votes to two.

Does the decision derail the new station?

The £24m Cottam Parkway station will occupy a 14.5-hectare site – of which the portion that would have been sold to County Hall for £1 as part of the Lea Road housing development represented around 10 percent.

The developer could now appeal against the decision of the city council’s planning committee to reject its plans – in which case the proposal would be assessed afresh by a government-appointed planning inspector – or it could tweak the proposal and bring it back to the town hall for further consideration..

When Lancashire County Council’s independent development control committee gave the green light to the station project last September, it took the unusual step of allowing five years for construction work to start, rather than the standard three.

That was done on the basis that acquiring the various and necessary pieces of land – currently in different ownerships – could be a lengthy process and so might require use of compulsory purchase orders, which is another possible option to further the Parkway development should this particular plot prove a sticking point.

With the potential for physical work on the station not even to begin until 2028 – with completion by the end of the decade – it seems unlikely that a land issue identified at this early stage would cause the plans to hit the buffers completely.

However, a spokesperson for Lancashire County Council told the LDRS after the planning committee meeting:  “This decision has only just been taken, so it’s too early to say how it affects the station plans.

“But we’ll continue to work closely with partners to deliver the station, and we’ll be in contact with them to look at the options for next steps.”

What did the developers say?

Story Homes had argued that in order for its Lea Road estates to be financially viable, it could offer only 6.7 percent of the total 281 properties at the discounted ‘affordable homes’ rate, compared to the 35 percent usually required by Preston City Council on rural developments.

The firm also claimed that it could not contribute anything towards the £1.7m-£2.7m in school place funding being sought by Lancashire County Council.

While the developer would have to pay £3.2m to Preston City Council in community infrastructure levy – a charge to fund local facilities in order to support new housing development –  the authority’s planning officers concluded that the “fundamental conflict” of the proposal with some elements of local planning policy meant contributions “above what is considered a viable outcome” for the company would need to be provided in order to make the application acceptable.

To that end, Story Homes offered to increase the affordable housing quota to 20 percent and essentially give away the tranche of land needed for the Cottam Parkway station.  However, it remained unwilling to meet the request for an education contribution.

At the planning committee meeting, the agent for the application, Louise Leyland, said the development would “deliver high quality housing in a sustainable location on the urban edge of Preston”.

She added:  “The scheme will see the transfer of land required for Cottam Parkway for £1, allowing this important project to be delivered and the benefits to the residents of Preston [to] be realised.”

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