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Moving the Goalposts

Blackpool Road and the airport landThey're at it again!

This time the great Fylde sell-off features Blackpool Road North Playing Fields in St Annes.

Fylde Council and Kensington have got together to consider a complex land swap that would see the Playing Fields built over, and a new sports field created behind Rodney Avenue. (On land that is presently part of the airport, and bounded by Rodney Avenue, Leach Lane and the Airport itself).

Basically, Kensington have got into bed with the Airport to see what can be done to develop this chunk of land behind Rodney Avenue. It's probably too close to the airport runways for housing or industry, but if they can move the football pitches there, it could free-up the land under the present pitches for building houses.

So the plan, hatched last October - but not yet reported to Fylde's ruling Politburo - goes like this: 

Subject to being granted planning permission to use the airport land for recreation, and provided that planning permission to change the present football pitches to housing land is also granted, Kensington want to acquire Fylde's leasehold interest in the existing Playing Fields. They will then negotiate with the ground landlord to buy out the freehold so they can re-develop it for housing.

They would also provide new sports pitches on the land behind Rodney Avenue, and drop a big brown envelope off at the Council offices with whatever cash is left over as a thank-you for the deal. 

This capital receipt will be possible because the value of recreational land might be, say,  2,000 per acre, but with residential planning permission, it becomes worth perhaps 1 million an acre overnight. 

A football pitch is not far from being an acre, and there are three of them on Blackpool Road North Playing Fields, plus a youngster's pitch and lots of space around and between them. So in the example above, the value of the land might go from say, 10,000 to 5 million or more, just by granting the planning permission.

Now on the one hand, this seems like it could be quite a good idea (except for those folk who live nearby, and don't want their peace and quiet or views disturbed, of course). 

In the most general terms, almost nobody loses, and we get sparkling new football facilities (which, of course, is how it will be sold by Councillors who support the idea). The Council also gets a cash sum. 

So why would counterbalance moan?

Well, there are a few reasons, some connected with whether this is the most advantageous time to sell land for building, and others about whether the Council might not be better talking directly with the airport themselves and selling the land to the highest bidder.

But mostly, it's to do with integrity. 

We need to be sure that when the Council deals with planning applications, they do so without their decisions being influenced by the prospect of a cash receipt. 

This doesn't always happen of course, as we saw when Newfield Jones offered to buy part of Ashton Gardens for a block of flats. 

In that case, there was also the promise of a big capital receipt, and Fylde Council was very relaxed in its treatment of Newfield's application. 

Resolutions were altered to suggest decisions had been made by the planning Committee when they had not; almost 8,000 public objections (without precedence in Fylde's history) were disregarded, and planning permissions were granted 'in principle' before the period for receiving objections to them had ended.

Taken together, these exceptions to what would otherwise be normal practice, suggest that an unacceptable conflict of interest might have existed, and at worst, a Council with moneybags rolling around in its eyes might have been blinded to its wider responsibilities. 

Whoring planning permissions for brown envelopes is one of the less attractive ways a Council can behave.

Nor does it help public perception when, as in the middle of the Ashton Gardens debacle, Fylde Council changed the process of how planning applications on its own land were dealt with. 

Historically, planning applications submitted by the Council itself, (and by other people applying for planning permission on land controlled by the Council) were given final approval at a meeting of the full Council. 

Thus every elected Councillor had the opportunity to publicly raise a concern and to vote on the matter. 

But part-way through the Newfield/Ashton Gardens planning decisions, this procedure was changed so that only Fylde's planning committee could vote on the granting of permission.

With Kensington's multi-million pound plans being dependent on getting planning permission, and being mindful of what happened over Ashton Gardens, some people might think it will be difficult for the Council's planning decisions not to be influenced by the prospect of such a substantial cash receipt.

The way Commissar Coombes and the voting fodder that supports him without question are selling things off, people might also be forgiven for viewing their Council more as an asset-stripping property speculator looking for his next quick buck than a responsible public authority setting an example of probity and integrity in its civic dealings.

This sort of approach suggests a planning system driven by short-term opportunities to generate cash rather than a desire to plan and regulate future development for the good of the area - and it's not a pretty sight. 

Dated 23 March 2006


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