Pickering's Farm: fury as government approves plan for 1,100 new homes in Penwortham - after councillors twice rejected it

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Controversial plans to build 1,100 homes in a rural part of Penwortham have been given the green light by the government - but could now face a legal challenge.

The proposed development of a sprawling site known locally as Pickering’s Farm - a plot of a land stretching between Penwortham Way and Leyland Road - has been thrown out by South Ribble Borough Council twice in the past three years.

However, the scheme was the subject of a public inquiry in the summer of 2022 after the joint applicants - housebuilder Taylor Wimpey and the government’s housing agency, Homes England - appealed against the local authority's refusal of permission.

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The planning inspector who chaired that inquiry and heard the evidence for and against the proposal recommended that it should be approved - and a government minister has now agreed.

The rural lanes of Penwortham could one day look very differentThe rural lanes of Penwortham could one day look very different
The rural lanes of Penwortham could one day look very different

The move should mean that the long-mooted plans - which have been roundly opposed by those living nearby - can finally get off the drawing board. But South Ribble leader Paul Foster has launched a furious attack on the decision and told the Lancashire Post that the authority will seek to fight it in the High Court.

Meanwhile, a resident who formed a campaign group to oppose the development said that the outcome demonstrated that local democracy was “broken”.

Ordinarily, it would be the independent inspector who had the final say in an appeal, but the government stepped in to take on that mantle for itself over Pickering’s Farm, after declaring that the scale of the plans would have a significant impact on its aim to secure “a better balance between housing demand and supply”.

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That meant planning inspector Partick Hanna’s conclusion acted merely as a recommendation to the government - but one that was ultimately backed by the minister considering the matter.

The public inquiry into the Pickering's Farm plans focused heavily on the extent to which traffic would be further slowed on the busy A582The public inquiry into the Pickering's Farm plans focused heavily on the extent to which traffic would be further slowed on the busy A582
The public inquiry into the Pickering's Farm plans focused heavily on the extent to which traffic would be further slowed on the busy A582

A raft of issues were debated during the nine-day Planning Inspectorate inquiry, but chief amongst them was the potential impact of the huge estate on already congested roads in the area - one of the main reasons that South Ribble’s planning committee had rejected the development when it was last assessed by councillors in November 2021.

However, Mr. Hanna rubbished much of the basis for a roads-based objection lodged by Lancashire County Council, the local highways authority - declaring that it was “impossible” to take one of County Hall’s claims seriously and questioning its methodology for concluding that the effect of the Pickering’s Farm plans on the road network would be severe.

The inspector also said that the applicants were right to claim that significant weight should be given to the cumulative benefits of the plans for the site, which include a new primary school and local centre for shops and community facilities.

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However, it was the new housing itself that Mr. Hanna appeared to regard as the biggest plus point in favour of the proposal - especially the fact that 30 percent of the dwellings would fall into the affordable housing category.

The existing Bee Lane bridge - but who should foot the bill for a new one in order to complete the cross-borough link road?The existing Bee Lane bridge - but who should foot the bill for a new one in order to complete the cross-borough link road?
The existing Bee Lane bridge - but who should foot the bill for a new one in order to complete the cross-borough link road?

“The provision of 1,100 new homes, of which 330 would be affordable homes, for which there is an acute and pressing need, is a hugely worthwhile public benefit in its own right,” the inspector wrote in his report.

So great was that benefit, he concluded, that even if the government considered that the blueprint was not in accordance with local planning policy, “the extensive public benefits” that the scheme would bring meant that the appeal should be allowed.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, noted that the site was actually earmarked for development in the current South Ribble local plan.

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In a decision letter issued on his behalf, Housing and Homelessness minister Felicity Buchan MP said that Mr. Gove, like the inspector, had ”not identified any conflicts” between that plan and the proposed housing - and so had decided to grant permission for the development.

Locals don't want their bucolic surroundings to become a building siteLocals don't want their bucolic surroundings to become a building site
Locals don't want their bucolic surroundings to become a building site

The approval is in outline form, meaning the finer details of the development - which is made up of separate applications for up to 920 homes off Penwortham Way and another for up to 180 properties to the east of the site, close to the railway line - will still need to be considered by South Ribble Borough Council.

The land on which the 1,100 homes are to be built makes up the majority of the slightly broader plot allocated in the local plan, which is expected to accommodate 1,350 homes in total, if further applications are brought forward for the remaining sections of the site.

‘WE WON’T STAND FOR IT’

South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster has pledged to do everything in his power to challenge the government decision on Pickering’s Farm in the High Court.

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“We've now got our legal people over it - we are not giving up, no chance.

“How any sensible person can think that the government overturning the council's democratic decision - that we made twice - is acceptable is just beyond me.

The development will be known as "The Lanes" because of the rural roads that surround itThe development will be known as "The Lanes" because of the rural roads that surround it
The development will be known as "The Lanes" because of the rural roads that surround it

“The justifications in the inspector's report don't seem valid to me. They don't seem to take into consideration any of the material considerations that the planning committee have.

“The roads through that area suffer appalling congestion. Yet some bureaucrat based in Bristol can spend a few days here, overturn a decision, and cause utter chaos for generations,” Cllr Foster said.

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He had argued at the inquiry that Pickering’s Farm should not be developed until long-stalled plans to turn the A882 into a dual carriageway between Lostock Hall and Penwortham had been delivered. That scheme was minus a confirmed budget at the time of the public inquiry, but it was last month listed as one of the projects that the government says it will fund with cash saved from the scrapped northern leg of HS2.

However, Cllr Foster says that the infrastructure will still take “a decade to sort out” - and he questioned “the timing” of the Pickering’s Farm announcement, which has been delayed three times in the 15 months since the inquiry.

Planning inspector Partick Hanna’s report was dated 9th February, 2023 - but the ministerial decision has taken another nine months to emerge.

However, South Ribble MP Katherine Fletcher turned her fire on the council for not producing a new local plan to replace the 2015 version in which the Pickering’s Farm site was allocated for development.

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“This is a disappointing failure by South Ribble Borough Council to update their local plan, leaving the planning inspector no choice but to follow due process,” Ms. Fletcher told the Post.

“I suggest local residents raise their concerns with the lead planning authority - which is South Ribble Borough Council.”

Central Lancashire’s three district councils - Preston, South Ribble and Chorley - have been working on a new joint local plan for the combined area for the past five years. The policy document, which will guide development in the sub-region for the next 15 years, is due to be completed and adopted by the summer of 2025.

‘THIS WILL MEAN TOTAL GRIDLOCK’

One of the leading local campaigners who has been battling against the Pickering’s Farm plans since their inception says that the government decision to approve them has ridden roughshod over local democracy - and will bring chaos to the road network.

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Graham Eastham, from the Keep Bee Lane Rural group, told the Post that the decision of South Ribble Borough Council’s planning committee to twice refuse permission for the development had counted for nought - in spite of local councillors knowing their area best.

“The planning inspector appointed by the Secretary of State has completely ignored the legitimate concerns highlighted in detail by South Ribble Borough Council, Lancashire County Council’s highways [department] and Keep Bee Lane Rural, who argued that the proposals were unsustainable on a range of issues.

“It is now apparent that the most fundamental local needs - transport, education, health and the environment - are being ignored and our elected local representatives appear to be rendered powerless to act,” Graham said.

“The adverse traffic impacts were not recognised by the inspector with the appellants’ hypothetical traffic model given a greater weighting that the current traffic reality experienced by local road users, which is almost complete gridlock at peak periods. It is certain as night follows day that the proposed homes will tip the road system into total gridlock.

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“The inspector [made] a local visit, but this was during peak holiday season when the road conditions were not representative. He failed to recognise the points raised by highways [officers] whose…models and local knowledge appeared to support the current congested baseline road conditions - and predicted major traffic disruption resulting from the scheme.

“It now transpires that we have six weeks to object to the decision whereas the Secretary of State has had a year to prepare his defence,” Graham added.

He had told last year’s inquiry that the proposed development was making people living in the countryside spot sick with worry - and said that some feared they would die in the middle of the building site that their quiet neighbourhood would become for the 15 years it would take to build the estate.

COUNCIL’S ROAD ANALYSIS 'UNREALISTIC'

A significant swathe of the public inquiry was taken up with claim and counterclaim about whether the surrounding road network could cope with the traffic that would be generated by an extra 1,100 homes.

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In occasionally testy exchanges with the barrister representing the appellants, a Lancashire County Council highways official argued that vehicle speeds were a better measure than journey times of the impact of the development.

Neil Stevens, strategic highways planning manager at the authority, noted that average evening rush hour speeds along the Preston-bound section of the A6 and A582 corridor – between the M6 junction and the ‘tank roundabout’ – would decrease from an already “incredibly low” 7.6 miles-per-hour to 6.5 miles-per-hour in the wake of the new estate being built. He suggested that such a slowdown would be severe.

However, in his report, planning inspector Patrick Hanna said that it was “impossible to take this seriously”, adding that the change “would be indiscernible”.

Mr. Hanna also took issue with the highways’s authority’s characterisation of journey times as “meaningless” when it came to gauging the severity of the development’s impact

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“It cannot be the case that an understanding of the effect of the proposals on journey times is beside the point,” he said, noting that County Hall did rely on such journey durations within its own planning application to convert the A582 into a dual carriageway.

“Doing so gives the lie to the position taken at the inquiry,” the inspector said.

He also said that the county council’s modelling of individual junctions “in isolation”, as if they “existed without other junctions before or after it in one’s journey” resulted in an “unrealistic” assumption that those other junctions were problem-free - when the self-same models showed congestion at each of them.

Mr. Hanna concluded that the proposed development - which the appellants’ modelling suggested would lengthen journey times along the A582 from Golden Way to junction 29 of the M6 by a maximum of two minutes and 43 seconds during the morning peak - “would not give rise to severe impacts on the road network”.

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A BRIDGE NOT FAR ENOUGH?

In refusing the Pickering’s Farm application two years ago, South Ribble Borough Council’s planning committee concluded that Taylor Wimpey and Homes England had failed to provide a firm commitment to deliver the outstanding stretch of the so-called “cross-borough link road” (CBLR) as part of the development.

That east-west route – first envisioned as long ago as the 1970s – would run across the new estate, connecting Penwortham Way to the completed section of the CBLR running between The Cawsey and the A6, which finally opened in 2020.

Last year's planning inquiry heard that the Pickering’s Farm development would create just over 1km of the link road at a cost to the developers of more than £5m. That would amount to 89 percent of the CBLR as it crosses the broader, allocated site – leaving around 130 metres to be built.

The appellants’ barrister had argued that South Ribble’s local plan did not require the developer of part of that wider location - even a large part like that being applied for by Taylor Wimpey and Homes England - to build or pay for the stretch of the CBLR yet to be delivered beyond the boundaries of the application site That section would require either a new bridge across the West Coast Mainline (WCML) or an upgrade of the existing Bee Lane bridge.

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South Ribble claimed that the appellants had committed to completion of the CBLR in full when seeking to get the site allocated for development within the current local plan more than decade ago - adding that the pledge had now been “unceremoniously dropped” and so putting the route at risk. Council leader Paul Foster said it was akin to creating a giant cul-de-sac.

However, planning inspector Patrick Hanna concluded that the local plan simply “protects” land that would be needed for the new road from physical development.

In his report, he said that “neither the policy nor the supporting text requires the developer of part of the allocated site to build or pay for the whole of the stretch of the CBLR or a new or improved bridge across the WCML”

The inquiry heard the cost of completing the CBLR across the remainder of the allocated site could range from £2m to £12.5m, as a result of uncertainties over the need for land purchasing and the cost of accessing the rail network in order to undertake the job.

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The proposal by Taylor Wimpey and Homes England will generate around £7.6m in community infrastructure levy payments, which Mr. Hanna said could go towards the completion of the route.

‘ESTATE WILL BRING BENEFITS’, DEVELOPER SAYS

A spokesperson for Taylor Wimpey and Homes England said of getting the go-ahead for their plans: “We have collaborated with the local community and other key stakeholders to develop our proposals and we welcome the recent decision to allow planning permission for the delivery of up to 1,100 homes.

“The development will bring a number of key benefits to the area including 330 new affordable homes, local highway improvements, significant financial contributions via a community infrastructure levy, land for a new primary school and a new local centre which will create new jobs as well as being an exciting new benefit to the local community.

“We are creating a sustainable development in accordance with South Ribble’s local plan, providing active travel connections with the existing neighbourhoods whilst delivering the homes necessary to meet the needs of the local community.”