Letter from Cllr Jon Barry to Council Regeneration Director
Posted: 16 August 2006
Description: Reply to Council Regeneration Director's letter of 8th Aug 2006.
16 Aug 06
Dear Mr Donnellon,
You will not be surprised to know that I fundamentally disagree with your analysis of the canal corridor situation as outlined in your letter to me. I have already outlined my case three times within the Council (planning briefing, my letter to the chief executive and at the actual cabinet meeting) but I will do so again.
The main disagreement between us lies in your assertion that it is sufficient to allow decisions on what happens on Council-owned land to be controlled through the planning process. I am sure that you are fully aware that the planning process is quasi-judicial and that the Council has only limited powers to control developments through this process. At the end of the day, even if the Council was to turn down the application, Centros Miller could appeal and have such a decision overturned.
You argue that if the plan adheres to the development brief then it is alright. This would be true in planning terms, but not in Council terms. That is why the planning route is such a weak one to go down in terms of control. As has been stated many times by officers of the Council, the best form of control is ownership. The development brief just says that a mixed use of retail, leisure, business units (not that there are any of these in Centros Miller’s plans as I recall) and so on is acceptable. There are a myriad of developments that would comply with this. The devil is in the detail and whether the mix is acceptable to the Council is something that should be decided by the Council.
I do not accept your argument that because we have done something similar in Morecambe on the central promenade site then it is alright to do it for the canal corridor. Firstly, the two developments are not really very similar. For the Lancaster development, the ‘consultation’ of residents was done before a scheme was developed and was, in any case, so vague to not be worth very much at all. The question was ‘what type of uses should be included in the development’ and then gave people the sort of uses outlined in the development brief. As it happens, culture/leisure came out on top (and I suspect by ‘leisure’ people didn’t think this meant pubs and bars). However, the important issue is the relative size of these uses and how they fit into any complete scheme. There has been absolutely no consultation on what people thought of the current scheme as envisaged by Centros Miller.
As I remember it, the Central Promenade development involved extensive public comment on six potential schemes for the site and a judging panel involving the leader of the Council. So, in that instance, the Cabinet effectively delegated that decision to the panel but was safe in the knowledge that there had been extensive consultation on final schemes. Even so, I remember Cllr Stone arguing strongly that the Cabinet should still give final approval to the winning scheme using the same argument of ownership that I have used. I was much happier to delegate this scheme because of the consultation and because there were not the financial, traffic and retail risks associated with this scheme that there are with the canal corridor scheme. Even so, I now think that Cllr Stone was right and that the Cabinet should have had the final say even in the much better circumstances associated with the Central Promenade development.
I can accept that from a developer’s point of view they will not want to spend money to proceed to the planning stage unless they have an agreement from the Council. However, in coming to that agreement, the Council’s decision-making body (the Cabinet) should be presented with the developer’s up-to-date plans. This did not happen at the cabinet meeting. Indeed, it was only after my strong insistence at the Cabinet briefing that we discussed the principle of the scheme at all. However, that discussion was hopelessly ill-informed because we did not have the information about how our decision for our land affected the district.
Further to my official complaint to the chief executive in my previous letter, I will now add a further complaint. This is that Councillors were either misled or incorrect information was not contradicted at the cabinet meeting in March 2005 when the masterplanning approach was agreed. I remember distinctly that the argument then (which may have been put by councillors but was not contradicted by officers) was that we should let Centros Miller do a masterplan and if we didn’t like the results of it then we could always say NO. Of course, this is what should have happened but it hasn’t. If it was known at the meeting of March 2005 (and presumably it was) that cabinet would not make a decision on the actual plan then we should have been told that at the time. Cabinet may well have voted very differently if it had known that.
As before, I am still extremely concerned by the possible financial implications of this development and how these will impact on the local tax payer. The aspects I am concerned about in particular are the financial impact on Lancaster Market and the reduction in car parking revenue resulting from the proposed net increase of 500 spaces on the canal corridor site. I have asked in writing for information on these financial aspects to be presented to councillors but I have been told by the chief financial officer that there is not sufficient material that can be quantified at this stage to say whether the impact would have an adverse or a beneficial financial impact on the Council. She also says that this impact can be worked out further down the line.
Again, my view is that these conclusions are very wrong. It is very difficult to see how the canal corridor development will increase revenue for the Council in terms of its own car parking or impact on the market. If one was looking for some form of objective evidence then why does one not use the Council’s retail study – otherwise, why do it? This says, for example, that the ‘best’ case scenario is that Lancaster could increase its share of the retail market in the region being looked at by 2.4% (I put ‘best’ in quotes because, from a Green perspective, increasing consumption of useless consumer goods doesn’t seem like ‘best’ to me). To do this, Lancaster would have to increase its retail space by about half of the amount that is being proposed by Centros Miller. This suggests that the canal corridor development would bring retail in the city centre to over-capacity and hence other retail such as the market would suffer. This seems to be the logical conclusion from the Council’s own study and, at the very least, this should be pointed out to councillors. Personally, I prefer the analysis from one of the butchers in the market who (and without the aid of an expensive retail study) said ‘if they build that development, it will shut the market’.
In other areas, the Council has gone risk assessment barmy. Yet, for this issue, where there is a very big danger of an outcome that will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, the risks aren’t spelled out at all. To say that we will know more ‘later on’ ignores the fact that the Council will have committed itself by then and will only be able to get out of the agreement if there are sufficient grounds to turn down the development at planning. The Council certainly won’t be able to turn stop the development because of any financial hardships that may be inflicted on the Council.
I am very unhappy both about the proposed canal corridor development itself and about the process that has been followed. It is obvious to me that, in a large area of central Lancaster, this whole episode has wiped out any improvement in public reputation that the Council may have earned over the last few years. Given that many officers and councillors (including me) have worked hard to make that improvement happen, I find that sad.
Once again, I am asking now, and I will ask at the cabinet meeting, that the full scheme and its implications for the district are presented to the cabinet meeting.
Cllr Jon Barry
16th August 2006