Letter to Eric Pickles

Dear Secretary of State

 

Station Rd Newport, Shropshire – Planning Application TWC/2011/0916

 

We are writing to you with regard to the decision made by Telford & Wrekin Council on 25th April to approve the application made by St Modwen’s to build a 87,000 sq ft (gross) superstore, one of the largest in the West Midlands, for Sainsbury’s on Council owned greenfield land outside of Newport, Shropshire, a market town of some 11,000 people.  We believe this decision has been made prematurely and on financial rather than on local and national planning policy grounds, which, if honestly applied, would have resulted in the application’s refusal.  The Plans Board revised recommendation is that the application be referred to you under the Town & Country Planning Act Direction 2009 with a view to it potentially being called-in for determination.  We outline below why we believe the approval decision is unsafe, has wider procedural and national implications, and consequently that it should be called-in for determination by your Planning Inspectorate.  We have already been in correspondence with your National Planning Casework Unit regarding our objections to the local planning case being used to justify the application’s approval.

 

A Premature Decision

 

The decision has been made prematurely on at least four counts:

 

  1. by the full Council (including Labour members of the Plans Board; the Conservative members were not present) in voting through its 2012/13 budget in March (1/3/12), which included the revenue effect (of some £1.3m) from the £21m sale of the council owned Station Rd greenfield site;

 

  1. by the Council’s planning officers taking the application to Plans Board last week in advance of the appeal due to start on May 15th for non-determination of the Audley Avenue (brownfield) supermarket application (TWC/2011/0632) and the Council’s proposed action in the High Court to appeal against the recent Mere Park Garden Centre grant of Lawful Development Certificate (PINS ref 2164340).  Should both appeals be lost there is a real prospect of all 3 prospective foodstores being built, a situation identified by the Council’s own retail consultants as untenable and certain to have a ‘significant’ adverse cumulative impact on the High St’ (thus failing town centre impact test set out in PPS4 and NPPF);

 

  1. by the Council’s planning officers in deciding to recommend refusal of planning application TWC/2011/0632 (Audley Avenue supermarket) at the Plans Board on March 28th, to allow their ‘statement of case’ to be submitted to the Inspector (PINS ref 2167505), the Council concludes that there ‘is a real prospect that this (Station Rd) site will be suitable in principle without prejudice to the consideration of the Station Rd proposal’.  We would argue that by stating that the Station Rd site is sequentially preferable, and the key reason for recommending refusal of the Audley Ave site, Council officers have in effect led Plans Board members to a decision on the Station Rd site when they have not had the full facts and have thus pre-empted a decision to approve;

 

  1. when outstanding issues have yet to be resolved, particularly those relating to surface water drainage and ecology, resulting in an abnormally long list of planning conditions/mitigation factors/’other conditions deemed necessary’ set out in the planning officers report (tabled at the Plans Board meeting itself) to be delegated to the Assistant Director – Planning Specialist to finalise after approval.

 

Implications for Government Planning Policy

 

The decision is clearly in contravention of key policies and principles set out in the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the Portas Report recommendations regarding the primacy of the High St, which your Government has now largely endorsed.  As a result it will have serious implications for Newport’s historic environment, a Conservation Area comprising of around 100 ‘listed’ town centre shops, owned/occupied predominantly by independent traders, whose livelihoods and ability to re-invest in large part depend on linked shopping trips generated by the 2 existing in-town supermarkets.  These will clearly be ‘at risk’ from the development of potentially between one and three out of town foodstores.

 

We have submitted a very exciting bid under the Portas pilot for regenerating Newport’s High St; this will be still born should this application be finally approved.  To ensure the prospective Portas pilots, such as Newport’s, have a realistic chance of success, Government policy relating to large out-of-town superstores will clearly need to be strengthened, otherwise the initiative will end in failure, and a real opportunity to regenerate the nations declining town centres will have been missed.

 

The exclusion of the Waitrose supermarket from the town centre impact test, carried out under PPS4 and now by inference the NPPF, on the basis that this is an ‘edge of centre’ store, is clearly a major error, leading to the planning officer’s report dismissing the direct impacts upon it ‘as irrelevant in planning terms’ (i.e. as it is deemed not to be located within the town centre).  Yet the NPPF defines a town centre as being ‘the area on the local authority’s proposal map, including the primary shopping area (PSA) and areas predominantly occupied by main town centre uses within or adjacent to the primary shopping area’.  Against this definition the Waitrose store clearly falls within the town centre as defined by the prevailing national guidance.  The store is clearly both functionally and visually integrated with the High St, and its shared parking reinforces this.  The retail impact test carried out by the applicant and subsequently by the Council’s own retail consultants is thus fundamentally flawed and should be re-run under the new NPPF guidance.  The approval decision made on the basis of the current impact test is therefore unsafe and should be challenged.

 

The NPPF confirms the primacy of the Local Development Plan LDP) where one is in place and acknowledges that planning law still requires that applications should be determined on the basis of the statutory LDP and remains the starting point for decision making.  The Council has an LDP in place comprising the Core Strategy (approved 2007) and saved policies from the Wrekin Local Plan and Joint Structure Plan.  The application is a clear departure from the Local Development Plan, particularly the policies relating to the Rural Area (Core Strategy 7) and Open Land (Open Land 6), which the Council’s planning officer’s report attempts to dismiss as ‘out of date’ and affected by ‘other material planning considerations’.  The lack of any ‘spatial’ dimension (Land Allocation Document) to the Core Strategy, means that the Local Proposals Map (from the former Wrekin Local Plan) is by default the current spatial strategy, a document which does not allocate the application site for development.

 

Moreover, the retail assessment on which the approved Core Strategy was based did not identify a need for additional retail floorspace on this scale; on the highest population growth scenario the maximum requirement was for an additional 11,000 sq ft (net) by 2026, less than one fifth of the size of store now being proposed, and upon which the sequential test (under NPPF) has been based.  Based on these figures, your own Inspector at the Mere Park Inquiry in 2010 (appeal ref. 2125557) confirmed that the only additional floorspace required and beneficial to Newport would be that provided by a discount retailer located on or immediately adjacent to the High St.  We fail to see what has so fundamentally changed over the past 2 years that now leads the Council to a different conclusion, particularly when retail planning by the large foodstore operators would seem to be moving away from large out of town superstores and more towards a ‘click and deliver’ model using the internet.  This demonstrates a serious lack of consistency by the Council.

 

Your Government’s policy, reaffirmed in the NPPF, is to protect the nation’s High Streets by putting them ‘first’.  This application clearly does not put the High St first, it will undoubtedly undermine its viability, and so is contrary to national government policy and the NPPF.  This was confirmed by your Minister for Decentralisation & Planning when launching the NPPF on 27th March, when he stated that there should be a ’presumption against out of town greenfield sites for supermarkets’.  The suggestion in the planning officer’s report to Plans Board ‘that development on greenfield sites will need to occur and may be the appropriate solution to accommodate growth of Newport’, is contrary to the NPPF, particularly when brownfield sites are clearly available.

 

The NPPF also states as one of its key principles that brownfield sites should be considered first, and only where these are not available should greenfield sites then be considered.  The applicant and the Council’s own retail consultants argue, in applying the sequential test (incidentally under PPS4 guidance and not the NPPF), that suitable brownfield sites to accommodate a superstore of this scale do not exist.  However, brownfield sites are readily

 

 

available which could accommodate a smaller sized foodstore, as in the case of the Audley Ave site, which is going to appeal for non-determination on 15th May (PINS ref 2167505), for a supermarket of 55,000 sq ft (gross).  Whilst quantitative need is not a first test under PPS4 or the NPPF, it remains a material consideration; we believe the question of scale has not been adequately considered, and hence the sequential test has been conducted from the wrong baseline size of store.

 

The NPPF has now confirmed that environmental and social factors should be seen as equally important as achieving sustainable economic growth and that ‘contributing to conserving and enhancing the natural environment’ is also a key imperative.  However, the officer’s report to Plans Board only makes reference to the former and not to the latter.  The proposed superstore development should thus be judged equally on environmental and social criteria, as well as economic.  Therefore the proposals do not meet the sustainability criteria set out in the NPPF, nor the Council’s approved Core Strategy.

 

To summarise, we believe that the application is open to challenge as not complying with the Government’s NPPF.  The application does not comply with any Development Plan policy, and there are no material considerations that dictate otherwise.  The application cannot be considered to comprise Sustainable Development, as defined by the NPPF – therefore a presumption in favour of development does not apply and the application should be refused.  Moreover, the fact that the applicant’s supporting documents and the Council’s own retail consultant’s Appraisal of Retail Planning Issues and subsequent addenda were all prepared prior to the publication of the NPPF, we believe that a case can be made for requiring these documents to be revised before any decision can be taken.

 

To conclude, we believe that for the reasons set out above, this application should not be left to the Local Authority to determine.  We would respectfully request, therefore, that this application be called in for your own determination.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

 

David Parker, Chair, Newport Regeneration Partnership

 

 

 

Adrian Meredith, Telford & Wrekin Borough and Newport Town Councillor

 

 

 

Patrick Beech, Chair, Newport Chamber of Commerce

 

 

cc Greg Clark MP; Mark Pritchard MP

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