Preston-M55 link road faces high court battle

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A major road-building scheme designed to link the north of Preston with the M55 motorway is to face a legal challenge.

The Preston Western Distributor Road was provisionally given the green light just over twelve months ago.

READ MORE >>> What is the Preston Western Distributor and how does it link to over 5,000 new homes?

But as members of Lancashire County Council’s development control committee met to grant final approval, they were told that a landowner had lodged papers with the high court, objecting to the design of the scheme and the process undertaken to obtain planning permission.

Tom Barron Farms Limited wants an additional roundabout included on the route to provide access to a ‘garden village’ proposed for its portion of the North West Preston Masterplan site – a wider area earmarked for more than 5,000 new homes which would be served by the link road.

READ MORE >>> Costs of new link road soar by £57m

Richard Purser, associate director of consultancy firm DPP Planning, speaking on behalf of the landowner, told the committee that his client had a “shared objective” to see the dual carriageway built – and added that the roundabout option was £600,000 cheaper than current plans.

However, he warned that the scale of the road scheme meant it was not for the county council to decide upon – and said an application should instead be made direct to the government for approval via a development consent order (DCO). The high court will now decide whether to grant a judicial review of the process.

“We know the council’s own legal advice disagrees with our position,” Mr. Purser said.

“But the consequences are severe for this council if [it] is wrong. [It is] a criminal offence to undertake work requiring a DCO without having first obtained one and the penalty for such an offence is an unlimited fine,” he added.

Members heard that there was an “impasse” between the authority on one side and Tom Barron Farms and construction firm Robertson Group on the other.

“There isn’t really a compromise – it’s either a planning application or a DCO,” county council solicitor Jill Anderson told the meeting. “Ultimately, it will be determined in the courts.”

But she added that groundwork on the project was far from imminent, meaning that there was time for any court process to be concluded beforehand. Councillors voted to grant planning permission in the meantime, subject to a series of conditions requiring final details about the scheme.

Meanwhile, the committee heard that it might not be the end of the road for the additional roundabout – no matter what the high court rules. Applications for individual housing developments, like the proposed garden village, would still need to be approved by Preston City Council.

“One of the likely outcomes would be a requirement to create some kind of connection to the Preston Western Distributor,” Andrew Mullaney, Lancashire County Council’s head of service for planning, said.

“It is something which could happen, but through the normal processes which have to be followed.”

A public inquiry will begin next week into compulsory purchase orders issued for the land needed to build the road. The route does not cut through any existing houses, but will run across existing farmland.

County hall first learned about the threat of a legal dispute over the scheme in the spring. The application for the Preston Western Distributor Road has been due to be debated by the authority’s development control committee on three occasions, but the item has either been deferred or the meetings cancelled.

LEGAL ROADBLOCK?

A protected species of bat had appeared to be the only barrier to the proposed Preston Western Distributor Road before the high court challenge was launched.

The creatures’ current dwelling was deemed too close to a proposed junction on the route near to the Saddle Inn pub on Sidgreaves Lane. Councillors heard that an alternative home had been found in the vicinity and was subject to final agreement over the design of the purpose-built nest.

But DPP Planning, representing landowner Tom Barron Farms Limited and construction firm Robertson Group, claimed that the potential impact on other protected wildlife – including the great crested newt – meant that a licence would only be granted by Natural England if it could be demonstrated that alternative routes had been considered.

The firm also claimed that plans to re-route the Hodder Aqueduct – designed to lessen the environmental impact of an earlier plan – had not been consulted upon properly.

But in papers presented to Lancashire County Council’s development control committee, the authority’s legal officers said the proposed route for the road was “the only option”. They added that diversions to the aqueduct had been properly advertised and there had been no procedural error.

In a statement after the meeting, Stephen Young, executive director of growth, environment, transport and community services, said: “The county council is aware of the views of Robertson Group but is satisfied that the correct procedure is being followed in this matter.

“A planning application concerning the road scheme was considered by the county council’s development control committee at its meeting on 14 November and the committee resolved to grant planning permission.

“The county council will appear to present its case for the compulsory purchase of land for the road scheme at a public inquiry that begins on 20 November.”

WHAT IS A DEVELOPMENT CONSENT ORDER?

Since 2008, developers have been able to speed up the process for obtaining planning permission for the biggest infrastructure projects.

Rather than applying to the relevant local authority, applications can be submitted direct to government for a development consent order (DCO).

Applicants have a duty to consult on their plans and local councils would still be able to have their say – but they would not determine the final decision.

The Planning Inspectorate carries out a six-month examination period, during which interested parties – including local authorities – can make representations. A recommendation is then made to the Secretary of State about whether or not to approve the application.