Pickering's Farm: Government to decide appeal over plans for 1,100 homes

The government will get the final say over whether hugely controversial plans for 1,100 new homes in South Ribble are given the green light, the Lancashire Post can reveal.

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - or one of his junior ministerial colleagues - will ultimately decide the outcome of a forthcoming appeal over the proposed development of the Pickering’s Farm site in Penwortham. But locals have accused the government of ‘hijacking’ the process.

South Ribble Borough Council’s planning committee rejected the scheme last November in the face of a range of road-related concerns.

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The future of the bucolic Bee Lane now lies in the government's hands, with a minister set to decide whether or not to approve plans for 1,100 homes

Housebuilder Taylor Wimpey and the government‘s housing delivery agency Homes England - who are jointly behind the application - appealed against that decision, sparking a public inquiry which is scheduled to take place later this summer.

That event will still go ahead and the planning inspector leading it will produce the report that he or she usually would after the inquiry has concluded.

However, instead of issuing a firm decision about whether the appeal should be upheld or dismissed, the inspector will now merely make a recommendation about what should happen next.

It is at that point that Mr. Gove or a minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will step in to be the final arbiter, based on the evidence presented to them from the inquiry - a step officially known as “recovering” an appeal.

According to a letter seen by the Post, the Secretary of State decided to get involved, because the appeal involves “proposals for residential development of over 150 units…which would significantly impact on the government’s objective to secure a better balance between housing demand and supply and create high quality, sustainable, mixed and inclusive communities”.

The government’s move is the latest twist in a long-running saga over the suitability of the Pickering’s Farm plot for the development proposed for it - and it has drawn a furious response from residents opposed to the plans.

Graham Eastham, one of the founding members of the Keep Bee Lane Rural group, told the Post that “suspicion of the process is rife amongst the local community”.

“For the appeal process to be hijacked by the government is highly unusual and very disturbing. It makes a complete mockery of local democracy and local accountability.

"We can only hope that due process will be followed and all the concerns of the expert witnesses will be heeded.

“It is becoming very evident that the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal finances are in a shocking state and we hope this intervention by the government is not an act of desperation to get Pickering's Farm monies to shore up a failing scheme,” Mr. Eastham said.

Meanwhile, South RIbble Borough Council leader Paul Foster said that he was “really, genuinely shocked and extremely concerned at the decision of the Secretary of State to intervene at this late stage”.

Speaking to the Post, the Labour leader added: “The council and community have been through hell with this application and then, suddenly, the democratic process appears to be subject to a wholly inappropriate intervention.

“That said, the council's legal team are already onto this and if any unacceptable intervention is applied, we will of course take it to the highest court.

“We stand by our community and this will never change our view. The establishment need to understand we will never back down and we will not stand by and let our community down - ever,” Cllr Foster said.

Housing plans for Pickering’s Farm were first mooted more than four years ago, but a proposed masterplan for the plot - which is allocated for development under South Ribble’s local plan - was thrown out by councillors in September 2020 over what they said was a lack of detail.

A revised blueprint was submitted in support of fresh proposals in November 2021, but this, too, was rejected - including for the reason that local policy demands that the masterplan document is agreed and approved in advance, before any specific planning permission is granted.

That was one of a litany of issues that the authority’s planning officers highlighted in their recommendation to refuse two related applications -one for 920 homes off Penwortham Way, including a local centre for retail, employment and community uses, a two-form entry primary school and green infrastructure, and another for 180 properties to the east of the plot close to the railway line

The committee was told of a range of highways concerns regarding the proposals, including the absence of a “firm commitment” to the completion of South Ribble’s cross-borough link road to run across the site and connect the A582 with the stretch of new east-west route between The Cawsey and the A6 which opened in 2020.

Lancashire County Council’s highways officials judged that there was a “lack of supporting evidence” accompanying the plans, which left them dissatisfied with “all aspects” of the applications.

However, the applicants also stated that they had “taken the opportunity” to consider creating a segregated footpath on the narrow Bee Lane bridge and a priority give way system for motor vehicles, rather than the two-way flow previously proposed.

Mike Axon, managing director of Vectos, the traffic consultants for the scheme, told the committee that South Ribble’s local plan did not require the creation of the cross-borough link road “in whole or part...for the application to be acceptable”.

He also claimed that there would be “no meaningful traffic effect” as a result of the development, citing typical increased journey times on the A582 from the A59 through to the M6/M65 junction of between 30 and 80 seconds.

Taylor Wimpey and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities were both approached for comment over the move by the government to decide the outcome of the appeal.

It is the second time this week that it has staged such as intervention in Central Lancashire, after Michael Gove said that his department would determine an appeal against the refusal of plans for a third prison next to the Wymott and Garth jails in Ulnes Walton.

The Pickering's Farm inquiry is due to begin on 23rd August.