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countering the spin and providing the balance


A Flying Tackle?

A Flying Tackle?Back in March 2006, in 'Moving the Goalposts' counterbalance broke the news that Fylde Council and Kensington Developments had put together a complex land swap that would see Blackpool Road North Playing Fields built on, 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 had got into bed with the Airport to see what could be done to develop this chunk of land behind Rodney Avenue.

We noted the land was too close to the airport runways to use it for buildings, but they spotted that it was OK for football, and if they could move the football pitches there, it could free-up the land under the present pitches for building houses.

So the plan, hatched as long ago as October 2005 - went like this:

Subject to being granted planning permission to use the airport land for recreation, and provided Fylde Council also grants planning permission to change the present football pitches to housing land, Kensington would acquire Fylde's leasehold interest in the existing Playing Fields. They will then negotiate with the ground landlord (Lytham Town Trust) to buy out the freehold so they can re-develop the existing playing fields 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 is possible because the value of the playing fields as 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 at least three of them on Blackpool Road North Playing Fields, plus a youngster's pitch and lots of space around and between them.

In all there are around 8.9 acres. So in the example above, the value of the land might go from say, £18,000 to £9 million or more, just by Fylde Council granting the planning permissions.

Kilnhouse Ward councillor Roger Small told the Gazette at the time: "The council has received a speculative letter and a meeting has been called between ward councillors. If things go forward, we would speak to local residents to see what they think. I've got a pretty clear view on what it would be. The developer doesn't just have to make a case to the council, but to local people as well."

But there is another thread that runs alongside this story.

And it involves the Airport.

In 'Flight of Fancy' back in July 2006, we predicted the Airport planned: to close some of the smaller runways; extend the business park further into the green belt; provide a taxiway; increase car parking and terminal services and, eventually, provide a new hangars on the south side of the runway - toward near Blackpool Road North, Leach Lane and Rodney Avenue.

In "The Great January Sale" (Jan 07) we showed how Commissar Coombes was planning to asset strip the Borough to fund a new Council Office Block. The "surplus" assets under review at that time included (unsurprisingly) Blackpool Road North Playing Fields.

However, as we neared the May election, these schemes went quiet. Maybe the Commissar and his compatriots noticed there was less chance of getting elected if they gave public support for these unpopular schemes.

Then in "A Wing and a Prayer" last April we showed how the airport masterplan process had begun with a planning application to extend the industrial area into Fylde's Green belt. We also noted that Council officers were sceptical, but Councillors, led by Planning Chairman Trevor Fiddler, were keen to make sure no obstacles were put in the way of the airport's needs.

Now, after the election has been and gone, we find the Politburo Cabinet is considering the controversial land swap once again.

Now isn't that a surprise!

This time around the report to the Politburo meeting of 14th November has been given less detail about the scheme to make their decision, but it's obvious work has been going on in the background to get the "i"'s dotted and the "t"s crossed before announcing it.

The officer introducing the item made it sound as though this was going forward.

At least two of the Councillors (Fazackerley and Ashton) declared a personal prejudicial interest in the matter and left the meeting whilst this item was discussed. We don't know about Coun Fazackerley but Dim Tim is probably connected through family or some other linkage to the Lytham Town Trust who own the land and will benefit.

Most of the other Councillors seemed cautiously in favour of the idea, excepting for Kilnhouse ward Councillor Roger Small - of whom more later.

It also looks as though Kensington has primed a few folk to speak up for the idea.

There is so much smoke hiding everything that happens around the airport it's difficult even for counterbalance to penetrate the web of intrigue that is spun, but we'll have a go.

The airport site is owned by MAR Properties Ltd (who bought it from City Hopper Airports, who bought it from Blackpool Council)

Publicity shy MAR Properties has assets close to £1 billion, and its property portfolio includes shopping and retail centres throughout the UK, Blackpool Airport, Wolverhampton Airport, and a chain of pubs in Northern Ireland, it also has residential development land and some interests in Canada. Their primary goal is to associate themselves with entrepreneurial people who have the ability and vision to create, grow, acquire and exit exciting businesses.

They also say they are not afraid to get their hands dirty, and their confidentiality comes guaranteed. Their Chief Executive Robin Horner said last year "...The company is very dynamic and progressive. It has a proven track record of successful investment including the rapid development of Blackpool International Airport.'

So what you see here, is not an airport, its a secretive multi-million pound property speculator and developer who has Blackpool Airport as a tenant on part of its land.

You have to keep that fact in mind, because you rarely hear from MAR, only from their tenants that run the airport. But MAR is ready to use that tenant to rape the green belt and open spaces of Fylde to procure its own profits.

So who runs the airport then?

Well, a company called Blackpool International Airport.

Their long term plan (presumably with at least the agreement of their landlord ;-)) is to shift all the airport buildings from Squires Gate Lane to the other side of the airport (St Annes side).

Now why would they want to do that?

Squires Gate Lane is a major, motorway linked, road. It was designed to take the sort of traffic that airports and their services need, and it had squillions of our taxes spent in recent years to upgrade it to this status.

The answer, of course, is that if the move is made, it will release a lot of valuable land and buildings on Squires Gate Lane to be re-developed - probably into a financially more beneficial planning category (like you get when changing the use of green land into housing).

But a move like that costs a lot of money.

So how is it to be financed?

How can you get your hands on cheap money these days, when banks are even wary of lending to each other.

The answer is that you persuade naive and cash-strapped Councillors that your plans have a major beneficial impact on Fylde's economy, and you promise them (the financial equivalent of) crumbs from the deal, together with some football pitches that are greater in number but some of which are so small they wouldn't even qualify as a junior pitch (they have to be called mini-pitches and astro turf 5 a side pitches) if the Councillors will just change your £18,000 into £9 million or whatever overnight, just by granting a couple of planning permissions.

If Fylde was that anxious to provide better facilities for sport and recreation, it could grant planning permission to itself (rather than to Kensington), and probably make a lot more on the deal.

Oh yes, sorry, we forgot. Kensington are also going to throw in a 250 place car park for the footballers to use.

Or maybe that's actually going to be the parking for the new industrial complex that will disturb and poison the air for residents all along the St Annes side of the site as unburnt fuel is released and the engines are tested and repaired, and quite possibly, as aircraft are flown-in from elsewhere to be repaired at the new workshop with all the latest equipment.

Perhaps the Airport would normally have to apply for planning permission for the car park as part of the workshop hangar development, and this is a cute way of avoiding having to do that.

It's no wonder that folk bounding the airport are angry. They have every right to be.

Its also understandable that when they see a Council so ready to support planning permissions that will finance the nuisance the repair facilities will undoubtedly become for them, they wonder how such a Council can make impartial decisions when it is offered inducements in the form of cash and sweeteners like mini football pitches on replacement playing fields.

They might get even angrier when they realise the replacement playing fields are not replacements at all, but part of the plan to landscape and meet the needs of parking for the repair hangars.

Look at the plan sent to Fylde Council. (Follow this link then click on 'Cabinet Agenda' and go to pages 52 and 53).

Some Politburo members at last night's meeting said it was "only indicative" of what might be provided, and the community should be consulted on what they would like to see there. (which of course starts the process to get at least some people behind the scheme).

But it's obvious the plan hasn't been laid out by anyone with some technical nouse. No one with a hint of sense would provide football pitches separated by lines of trees. It means there isn't space to move or re-orientate worn out pitches so damaged areas can recover each season, and the cost of grasscutting will be out of all proportion to what it should be. Playing fields are left open for just those reasons. They can be cut efficiently with big tractor units, and the pitches can be moved and re-orientated year on year to spread the wear.

The current land on Blackpool Road North holds three generously sized adult pitches and one junior pitch, together with enough inter-pitch space to allow for re-orientation. What's now on offer on the airport land is one (apparently minimum sized) adult pitch (which no one will want to play on because it is too small), five (probably minimum sized) junior pitches with touch lines so unbelievably close to the penalty boxes that they won't be suitable for much more than toddlers, two "mini-pitches", two small five-a-side Astroturf pitches (which are unnecessary on the well drained sandy ground here, and they are expensive to maintain), replacement changing rooms and a playground.

So what you actually have here is a cheap way to provide some landscaping for the hangars, and a good way of making money that will reduce the quality of life for residents all around the affected areas whilst at the same time making it look as though something beneficial is being provided.

What you have here is a sprat to catch - in this case - a shed load of money.

In keeping with so much else around this administration, it's a con.

Local residents might like recall the words of the airport's Mr Kennedy, who told the Gazette last September: “The redevelopment of the south side of the airport will benefit residents near St Annes. All of the buildings will be landscaped and there will be thick earth placed around the hangers that will deaden any noise."

Yeah, right.

He obviously went to the same school of doublspeak as our Commissar.

But there may be some hope. At last night's meeting Ward Councillor Roger Small spoke very sensibly. He likened the scheme to a Christmas present lying underneath the tree. All prettily wrapped up and sparkling, but you don't know what's in it till you open it.

He then said he would like to see ten questions answered before they go too much further on the idea. We heard him ask:

  • How would the safety of the airport be affected by this plan?
  • What exactly will be the impact on residents?
  • Cash. How much is on offer and from whom?
  • Will the scheme offer more or less benefits than exist now?
  • Who benefits from the scheme and by how much?
  • What is the impact for residents of the Blackpool Road area?
  • Is the Council actually allowed to dispose of its interest in the playing fields?
  • What exactly, is the development that is being proposed?
  • What are the arrangements for road access to the new housing and leisure facilities?
  • In what order will the work be undertaken if it goes ahead.

This last one is especially important if, for example, Kensington gets its planning permission, then buys the football pitches, but has some sort of problem being able to provide the replacement facilities and doesn't actually get round to it. So as Coun Small said, if the scheme were to go ahead, the pitches must be up and running before the first sod is cut on the housing site. This theme was also taken up by Coun Henshaw.

Now these are excellent questions. They are the sort of questions we used to hear in Council meetings, from able and experienced Councillors properly representing their communities, and if Coun Small is genuine in his concerns, the people of Kilnhouse have a worthy Councillor to take forward their cause.

But we also know that Ward Councillors often speak up against a scheme on their patch, safe in the knowledge that their colleagues - whose votes don't depend on the affected local people - will vote it through. This duplicity allows Ward Councillors to appear to support their electorate, but perhaps not actually to do so.

The Commissar himself said of the plan: "A significant amount of horse-trading will need to take place." So he seems to think it should go forward. (We were tempted to ask "Would you buy a used horse from this man?" but we didn't)

It's always difficult to judge, but from the tone of his comments at last night's meeting, we didn't think Coun Small was being duplicitous. He sounded genuinely concerned.

If our analysis of his motives is right, we wish him every success in getting those questions answered.

The Politburo overall approved the idea of having officers consult with the public on this matter before re-considering it, together, hopefully, with answers to the questions posed by Coun Small.

We'd pose one further question for Coun Small to ask. There is a funny shaped bit of land full of trees on the area next to the planned 250 space car park. What is it for? Judging by it's shape position, we think this is probably going to turn out to be the new access road for the repair hangars. (but they wouldn't want you to know that yet).

We'll keep readers informed of more developments as they arise.

Dated:  15 November 2007


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