Lancaster groups air concerns over £260m south Lancaster development ahead of city council decision
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Lancaster City Council is expected to make a decision at a special meeting on August 25 on whether to accept £140m of Housing Investment Funding (HIF), which would form part of a larger plan for the development of more than 9,000 new homes in south Lancaster and a major reconfiguring of junction 33 of the M6 and surrounding roads.
Many residents have already made their feelings clear about the development, while council leader Caroline Jackson said the proposal has the potential to be 'the biggest decision in 20 to 30 years' that Lancaster City Council will have to make.
Here, both CLOUD (Citizens of Lancaster Opposed to Unnecessary Development) and Lancaster Civic Society tell us their views on the scheme, and why they believe the decision-making process needs to be further delayed.
Local residents welcomed the opportunity provided by council leader Caroline Jackson for public discussion about the South Lancaster Growth Catalyst (SLGC), which includes the Bailrigg Garden Village development. Two briefing sessions were held on August 4 and 11.
They were the first time that residents were able to put key questions to council officers about the evidence for – and impact of - the 9,185 new houses proposed for south Lancaster.
A special meeting of Lancaster City Council has been called for August 25 to decide whether to accept a Housing Infrastructure Fund grant which would cover part but not all the of the associated infrastructure costs.
However, the sessions raised more concerns and questions than answers. In particular :
● Residents asked repeatedly for evidence to support uplifting the housing target from 3,500 (agreed in the 2019 Local Plan) to the current figure of 9,185. This equates to a new town of 30,000 people – rather more than the population of Kendal! Council officers’ attempts to justify the 9,185 figure as only a ‘business case figure’ met with scepticism.
● The briefing sessions were told that housing developers would be expected to contribute to infrastructure costs through payment of a ‘roof tax’. The high level of such funding needed for south Lancaster, combined with evidence from other developments that developers find ways of reducing or even avoiding paying the tax altogether, led to real doubts that this amount of roof tax could be secured.
● There are very serious financial risks for the city council which it appears are only just beginning to be understood and made public. It would seem that any shortfalls on the massive £261m budget would have to be picked up by council tax payers.
● The impact on already stretched local health provision was reported in the Lancaster Guardian on July 22 2021. Similar concerns surround the provision of schools for the additional residents of south Lancaster.
● It would seem that we would be facing 25 years of construction traffic as the south Lancaster development is expected to extend into the 2040s. It’s not hard to see why residents are so worried.
● And all this in the same week that the UN has published its Climate Change Report which will surely make Lancaster residents sit up and think about whether they want developers to concrete over a extensive greenfield site, increasing both carbon emissions and the risk of flooding in an area which has all too recently suffered as a result of extreme weather events.
● One final question – why the rush? The city council has been asked to meet on August 25 to take a final decision on whether to go ahead and approve the the HIF money. Given that there are still so many unanswered questions and councillors are being asked to vote on the biggest strategic issue in the city for over 20 years, it seems almost farcical that a date in the middle of the holidays, when some councillors are likely to be away, has been chosen. The reason being given for the August date is a deadline of August 30 for the council to sign the legally binding Partnership Agreement.
In view of the scale and gravity of this matter, the CLOUD group is calling for the decision to be deferred until there has been an honest and open debate with the wider community – and for all concerned to be in possession of the full facts and evidence.
After all at full council on March 24 2021, a petition was tabled signed by 718 residents regarding the rushed nature of the Master Planning process. Janice Hanson, deputy leader of the council, said that she recognised the frustration experienced by residents and accepted that substantive issues had been raised.
She therefore made a recommendation. Council was asked ‘to mandate that consultation on the subsequent South Lancaster Area Action Plan should include structured questions and provide feedback to those registering comments/objections’.
This was seconded by Coun Gina Dowding, who gave a strong critique of existing consultation problems. This was passed unopposed by Lancaster City Council. Surely time should now be provided for proper residents’ consultation over the HIF bid, in the spirit of that vote?
LANCASTER CIVIC SOCIETY
Lancaster Civic Society are extremely disappointed about the lack of public consultation over the far-reaching implications of accepting Housing Infrastructure Fund monies.
We fully appreciate that the resolution of many long-standing transportation issues depends on the receipt of this funding.
However, we are of the view that there has been insufficient opportunity for a proper and robust engagement with the local community on this most important matter.
We cannot understand why it took until August for the city council to engage with the local community on this issue, when it was considered by Cabinet on June 8. We find this delay baffling.
The subject of the report was not listed on the published agenda for the Cabinet on June 8 and it was taken as an urgent item.
The city council must have been in discussion with the county council following their decisions on HIF in early 2021; it is therefore puzzling that it had to be dealt with as an urgent item.
Whilst the report was public, it contained an exempt appendix and the cabinet was advised that the matter would be considered during the confidential part of the meeting.
It is remarkable that the public report makes no reference to the obligation on the city council to support the provision of over 9,000 new dwellings in south Lancaster, as this is probably the most controversial aspect of the entire issue.
The public report contains an options appraisal which we consider to be extremely superficial for an issue of this magnitude. We hope that the exempt appendix contained a more robust analysis for cabinet members to consider
The justification used for dealing with the appendix as an exempt item was Schedule 12A, paragraph 3, of the Local Government Act 1972.
This relates to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information). This could not apply to the specific issue of supporting the provision of over 9,000 new homes in south Lancaster, and the consequential planning implications of any such decision. This information is of considerable public interest and could have been included in the public report.
The report of June 8 provided an important opportunity for the city council to properly articulate, in a public document, the arguments for and against accepting the HIF offer, particularly with regard to the obligation to facilitate over 9,000 new homes.
Had this happened there would have been ample time to consult on this and report back before making a final decision prior to the deadline of August 30. We do not understand why the council did not do this.
We consider the way the council has handled this issue to be in contradiction of its previous commitments to meaningful community engagement.
On August 6 2019 the city council cabinet approved a report on the “establishment of Advisory Groups for Cabinet members to engage with communities and stakeholders”.
The report stated that “The cabinet has expressed its intention to establish a network of groups to facilitate meaningful engagement and discussion with communities and stakeholders…”
This was a very positive commitment on the part of the city council to meaningful engagement with the local community, and the council took this so seriously that it amended the constitution to reflect this new approach.
However, the manner in which this issue has been dealt with falls very short of the commitment to “meaningful engagement and discussion” given in August 2019.
The city council propose to take a decision on this issue on August 25. This decision is one of the most far reaching that the city council has ever taken. To date the only opportunity for public engagement with the city council on this critical issue has been two Teams sessions, the first lasting 70 minutes, the second an hour.
At both sessions there were significant numbers of questions from the public that could not be addressed in the time available.
At both Teams sessions it was stated that the Local Plan, which had been subject to considerable public consultation, had identified the possibility of significant additional new housing, and had stated that a minimum of 3,500 new homes would be provided in south Lancaster.
It was stressed that that this had always been regarded as a minimum and not a target. The inference that we took from these comments was that the Local Plan consultation process had provided ample opportunity for public comment on the possibility of significant numbers of new houses in South Lancaster, and that no one should now be overly surprised by the suggestion of an uplift in the proposed number to over 9,000.
It is correct that the Local Plan Policy SC1 does state “a minimum of 3,500” but it also contains the following paragraph: "Policy SP6 of this DPD sets out the overall housing target and identifies a wide range of development sites which will be required to meet that Local Housing Need. The broad location for growth has identified opportunities to deliver in the region of 3,500 new homes, 1,205 of which the council believes can be realistically delivered during the course of this plan period up to 2034, due to the strategic infrastructure required to facilitate growth."
You will note that this paragraph uses the phrase “in the region of 3,500". We would contend that the combined effect of these two phases within the Local Plan would have led any reader [and perhaps the Local Plan Inspector] to reasonably conclude that whist there might be more than 3500 new homes delivered in south Lancaster it would still be in the region of 3500 i.e., a bit more, but certainly not 9,000+.
At both Teams sessions it was also asserted that the issues of the Local Plan and HIF were being wrongly “converged and conflated” However, in our view the two issues have become conflated. If the HIF agreement is signed, then this will partially predetermine future local plans.
The city council will be obliged to facilitate the provision of over 9,000 new homes in South Lancaster, which in turn will require the allocation, through the local planning process, of sufficient land to accommodate this. The only consideration [on this matter] for the local plan process will be to determine where these should be built.
We appreciate that the council has been advised that it must sign the legally binding Partnership Agreement by August 30. However, we believe that the county council has until 2027 to spend the HIF grant.
We cannot understand why a short extension to the identified deadline of August 30 to sign the Partnership Agreement could not be negotiated to allow time for meaningful consultation.
We would therefore urge the city council to defer taking a decision on August 25 to allow time for a public consultation exercise commensurate with the magnitude of this matter to the future of our city.