Major plans for thousands of homes, Bailrigg Garden Village and M6 overhaul to reshape Lancaster supported

A massive project unveiled to reshape south Lancaster with more than 9,000 homes being built has been backed by councillors.

Thursday, 26th August 2021, 11:52 am

Lancaster City Council faced some key decisions regarding the city’s future growth, development and environmental issues at an extraordinary meeting at Morecambe Town Hall last night (August 25).

Councillors were asked to decide if they supported a £140m Government funding offer linked to major plans for more than 9,000 new homes south of Lancaster, complete with road, drainage, flooding and other infrastructure works.

The plans included elements designed to fit with the development of a new campus at Lancaster University and the proposed new Bailrigg Garden Village, plus other areas and links with the M6.

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An artist's impression of how some of Bailrigg Garden Village might look. Image from JTP Architects.

The decision has been described as the biggest faced by Lancaster City Council in decades.

Lancaster City Council’s Green and Eco-Socialist parties were dismayed after rival parties backed a potential collaboration agreement with Lancashire County Council for Government-backed infrastructure funding linked to potentially thousands of new homes, road building and flood mitigation.

At an official extraordinary full council meeting lasting well over four hours, councillors debated alleged city council mistakes of the past, including the ‘Blobbygate’ Morecambe theme park fiasco, which some councillors blamed on a lack of legal advice and detailed information in the past. Councillors warned each other not to repeat past errors. There were also claims about an alleged lack of legal advice to current councillors over this new proposal.

Green councillors claimed the South Lancaster Growth Catalyst Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) represented failed 20th century planning ideas with an outdated reliance on cars, road building and suburban sprawl on green fields.

An artist's impression of how some of the housing might look in Bailrigg Garden Village. Image from JTP Architects.

Instead, they said the city council’s existing Local Plan would better-meet local needs including affordable and social housing. New housing would be built under the Local Plan – but the numbers would be lower than the 9,000 new homes threatened by HIF, they said.

But other parties supported the HIF proposal and a series of extra amendments were added to the recommended agreement with the county council.

Supporters said an HIF agreement would offer homes, flood improvement works and greater development control by the city council across the whole district. They said their support last night for HIF was purely for an agreement to be formalised between the the city and county councils, and for a ‘roof tax’ repayment system to the county for any forward provision of funding for infrastructure in south Lancaster.

Last night’s meeting included speeches from residents, objectors and parish council representatives.

Then the Green Leader of Council, Coun Caroline Jackson, began debates by appealing to councillors to reject the proposal for a legally-binding HIF collaboration agreement with Lancashire County Council.

The proposal is linked to a potential £140million in funding from the Government agency Homes England. The agency’s money would come via the county council and be used to support a range of infrastructure works including M6 junction work, new roads, draining and flood works.

In return, Lancaster City Council would take a role in recouping the forward-funding over time through a ‘roof tax’ on new homes and also share some of the financial risk if cash raised from the roof tax was not enough.

A shortfall could potentially happen if, for example, not enough new homes were built by developers. not enough land became available or new homes were somehow removed from paying the roof tax or some other events arose.

The HIP agreement with the county council and Homes England had been recommended by Lancaster City Council officers. However, a number of city councillors speaking last night queried the officers’ recommendation along with timelines surrounding HIF talks over recent months and the alleged short deadline for councillors to decide on the offer.

Some reminded councillors of previous alleged ‘bad decisions’ taken in the past, such as the sale of a market and ‘Blobbygate’ – Morecambe’s former Crinkley Bottom theme park fiasco – and urged councillors to ensure their decisions were based on sound, legal and financial advice and information.

With ‘Blobbygate’, Coun Jackson claimed the city council made a legally biding agreement without proper preparation and advice. “It was clear that the council acted hastily without good advice and we may be possibly paying for that now.

“We are paying for the market decision. It cost £13million to get out of an impossible market situation. Members did not have information or advice to be sure it was a good thing to vote for. Tonight we are being asked to agree to this, which we have not had legal advice on. ”

She alleged that legal advice had been promised but not received from a law firm.

She added: “Are you ready to take this decision? Are you sure you understand the collaboration? Two previous times you did not have legal advice and you did not understand the details.”

Calling for the HIF recommendation to be rejected, Coun Jackson proposed an alternative course of action. She proposed the council ‘move with all speed’ to enable the sustainable development of housing in south Lancaster as agreed in the council’s existing Local Plan.

Eco-Socialist Coun Alistair Sinclair expressed his frustration over the alleged timelines, deadlines, recommendations and working relationships between councillors and officers, asking who makes the decisions?

And Conservative Coun Richard Austen-Baker, a contract law expert, said he was surprised that no independent legal advice had been sought on the HIF recommendation.

Labour Coun Janice Hanson said thousands of good decisions had been taken by the council. She added: Selling the market was not a mistake. It was good decision. We might as well have paid each market stall holder £100 per week, such was the money we were losing. We learned from ‘Blobbygate’ and we will make a good decision tonight.”

In a series of debates, councillors then spoke for and against the HIF agreement recommendation. Emotions were running high at times and councillors were asked to be respectful of each other and officers.

Deputy Council Leader Eco-Socialist Coun Kevin Frea said: “I strongly oppose this scheme – not because of nimbyism or naivety, but because it makes a mockery of our promises to the people of our district, trashes our national reputation, and the cost is paid by the poor, the vulnerable and the generations that follow us who are all unequally impacted by climate change.

“We have committed in our corporate priorities to net zero carbon by 2030 while supporting other individuals, businesses and organisations across the district to reach the same goal. How does this proposal measure up against this and our other priorities?

Since our ‘Climate Emergency’ declaration in 2019, passed unanimously, officers have worked very hard to establish a reputation for Lancaster as leaders in taking action. We have secured £6.8m in Government funding to de-carbonise Salt Ayre Leisure Centre, published a draft climate emergency review of our local plan and taken other initiatives that have been priased.. We have also been commended in the Municipal Journal Awards 2021 for leadership in responding to the climate emergency.

“The Government’s advisors, the Climate Change Committee, have recently said that investments in roads should only be made if they do not lad to overall increased emissiomns. All the evidence is that new roads create new journeys. Just building the new road for Bailrigg Garden Community will use more than a quarter of our 90-year carbon budget.

“And what about the 9,000 plus houses? The Architects Climate Action Network says greenhouse gas emissions caused by the construction of new buildings and infrastructure, known as ‘embodied carbon emissions’, are a significant driver of climate change. The embodied emissions of an additional 9,000 houses will further deplete this budget significantly.

“We have also committed to transitioning to an accessible and inclusive low-carbon and active transport system“ including plans for a Bus Rapid Transit system, cycle superhighway, walking routes, green spaces, park-and- ride . Will this help counterbalance the scheme’s emissions?

“Highways England, in a response to a planning application to build 750 homes off Bailrigg Lane, suggests not. They state that there is no robust transport evidence to demonstrate that these forms of sustainable transport infrastructure and services will provide the necessary shift to achieve the sustainable movement of people and goods, particularly in relation to the level of proposed growth in south Lancaster.”

This conclusion is reinforced by a recent Transport for New Homes report, called Garden Villages and Towns, Vision and Reality. They examine whether the new ‘garden communities’, including ours, really offer a solution different from the usual car-based dormitory estates. They say there is an enormous gap between the garden community visions presented by government, consultants and local councils, and the developments likely to be built. The problem centres on building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport. The two problems are interrelated.

“Yes we need new homes, alongside cutting car miles. So we have to develop new communities responsibly. Reducing the need to travel is key. We need 15-minute neighbourhoods. We should prioritise developing these in Lancaster and Morecambe through the Canal Quarter, Frontierland and other projects.

“If we agree to this HIF funding, we will be trashing our climate change reputation, trashing our corporate priorities and helping to trash the planet.”

However, Morecambe Bay Independent Coun Cary Matthews said she understood the concerns and uncertainties but added: “HIF represents a real opportunity and developments such as Bailrigg Garden Village can showcase sustainable development and create new places that people will call home. Rejecting HIF would put our planning system in jeopardy and lead to ad-hoc, piecemeal developments.”

She added: “I believe adequate controls can be put in place to ensure developments will be effectively delivered.”

Eco-Socialist Coun Faye Penney read a quote from environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg about world politicians ignoring calls for action. But this was greeted by groans from some city councillors in the meeting.

Coun Jackson’s proposal to reject the officers’ HIF recommendation failed to receive enough support. So councillors then debated a number of other alternative recommendations.

At times, some discussions were held in private without the public or media.

Ultimately, a series of additional conditions were proposed by Labour councillors Janice Hanson, Erica Lewis and Anne Whitehead to the original recommendations.

In summary, these were that the city council”s chief executive support both the city and county councils in their shared priority of protecting the environment and meeting net carbon zero by 2030, support local businesses and jobs through the HIF project to build ‘community wealth’ and developed shared consultation plans so residents have more access to information and can see how developers respond questions and concerns.

Additional amendments regarding risk mitigation for the city council were also agreed. These include arrangements for the city council’s contribution to any shortfall and an annual review of shortfall risk.

Speaking near the end of the meeting, Coun Jackson warned: “You have been told tonight that this is a scare tactic and that you have not had enough advice.

“It is not a scare tactic. This is me, as Leader, saying that you as a group must make a wise and well-evidenced decision. We don’t have a legal comment on the collaboration agreement, you are signing something that is not finished and there is no viability report.

“I have a strong commitment to not putting more carbon into the atmosphere and to the Climate Emergency Statement that we signed. That is something that the district is committed to.

“You can proceed to build a road and motorway junction with the county to enable 9,000 homes. I am not saying ‘no to development. I’m saying ‘no’ to this HIF agreement. Building a new road is suggested to solve the problem but it actually puts the problem into the atmosphere and creates problems for our children.”