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Hollywood Nurseries Planning Inquiry

Hollywood Nurseries InquiryToday was the first day of the Hollywood Nurseries Inquiry. This is an appeal by Kensington Development against a refusal of planning permission for residential development on a site of the former Hollywood Nurseries, which themselves lie sandwiched between the old road from Cropper Road to Peel Corner where the garage that sold posh sports cars used to be, and the new road to B&Q called Lytham St Annes Way.

Whilst the site is small and the nurseries all but abandoned, it is an important site because it tests the arguments about building outside the settlement boundaries and a host of others. So we're going along to see what happens.

It's expected to last for two days, so we'll do a piece on each day so our readers who can't go can get a flavour of what's going on.

DAY ONE: 6 MAY 2009
After some parking 'issues' (ie finding somewhere handy where we didn't have to pay), we found ourselves in the  glory of the Regency/Baroque style of the Reception Room.

It's looking a bit faded these days for lack of TLC, and a thick covering of dust adorned the magnificent Square Piano. We know of Councillors of old that would have had the Chief Executive's head off for dust like that, let alone the poor state of the decorations and faded drapes, but such is attention to detail at Fylde today.

Apart from that carp, this is another of those rare counterbalances where Fylde has actually done something right. Refusing permission to the behemoth Kensington to build a residential enclave out in the sticks is both common sense and good planning, and Fylde's officers were lined up to do it.

As we arrived, the suits from Kensington were huddled in one window with their Barrister in a last minute conference.

Then in came the Fylde Team: Julie Glaister who we know of old, looking very much more mature, calm and confident than we remember many years ago. She was followed by Tony Donnelley, Fylde's ace local plans officer with his usual busy efficiency and Mark Evans, overall head of planning looking pensive and thoughtful. Their barrister appeared. An unknown blonde lady of diminutive stature acting on instruction from the Council's solicitor.

Five to ten the Inspector arrived. Whilst a couple of pleasantries were exchanged, the atmosphere was one of pregnant silence - like an old fashioned doctors waiting room where everyone is too nervous to speak.

And thus the appeal began.

Preliminary introductions and confirmation that both sides had all copies of all the documents was followed by opening statements from each barrister.

At this point the suits from Kensington asked for an adjournment to talk about bus timetables. This wasn't about getting home, but about the scope and extent they were prepared to fund a bus service to the proposed development. There was clear horse trading going on outside the room with occasional representations being made to Fylde planners.

Adjournment followed adjournment until 11:15 am when Kensington's barrister made his opening statement.

His manner was quiet but firm, somewhere between a doctor and an undertaker.

He said there were no technical issues in dispute, only matters of principle. He accepted the site was outside the limits of development, but the cornerstone of his case was that because Fylde did not have a five year supply of housing, (he said they had only around 2.5 years supply) there was a "massive" shortfall in Fylde of over 800 houses, and Greenfield sites would have to be used to provide it.

He said Whitehills was a sustainable site because it will provide food shopping, leisure, retail and employment. And now they had agreed to provide a bus running between St Annes Town Centre, their proposed development and Tesco at Marton for the next five years, it would make it even easier for people to get to the shops.

He then turned to the development policies criticising Fylde for not meeting Government targets and saying it was relying on its local plan which was prepared at a time when here was no requirement from Government to provide additional houses.

He went on to rubbish Fylde's Interim Housing Policy saying in effect it wasn't worth the paper it was written on, and the Council had no core strategy to justify refusing any applications, so it was only right the Inspector should find in their favour.

Fylde's Barrister's opening statement said it was conceded that FBC does not have a 5 year supply of land for building as required by the Government and this case was about principle and sustainability, but there were site specific issues - Greenfield, countryside, outside settlement boundaries and so on.

She paid particular importance attached to the subject of sustainability (no local shops, doctors, banks etc within walking distance, and the bus is only guaranteed for five years). This site is so isolated it is one of the poorest in Fylde for sustainability. She also said the Growth Point scheme had nothing formal, but this site was being spoken of by both Blackpool and Fylde as being for employment.

She agreed there was not a five years supply but the requirement for that also says other matters have to be taken into account, not least of which is sustainability.

At which point Julie Glaister took the stand. She was introduced to the inquiry and went through her proof of evidence (written statement of her views and position). Broadly she was Fylde's sustainability expert and had come to a different view from Kensington's experts.

This sustainability malarkey is completely stupid. Like the tax credit system  and the child support system, it is a fiendishly complex way of appearing to demonstrate  a point without having humans make any decisions for which they can be accountable. It aims to show 'statistically' that one site is better or worse than another for development.

From what we have seen it is utterly hopeless to try to explain (or even understand) it and because of this, despite aiming for objectivity, it is almost entirely subjective in its implementation.

Basically you take a series of objectives like "Reducing the fear of crime" and you develop sub-issues for each then rate each site according to how well you believe it contributes to the objectives. Scoring is with up to two plus symbols, question marks, or minus symbols and you are then supposed to convert these to an overall 'score' for each site

Julie explained she had used a different methodology to that of Kensington (apparently LCC have their own way of doing things and she had used that), and come up with a very different view.

Where Kensington's assessment showed Hollywood nurseries to be the third most sustainable in a list of sixteen or so in Fylde, hers had it as joint bottom. She went into quite some detail and justification of her decisions.

Needless to say the suits were not jumping for joy.

She was then cross examined by Kensington's barrister. He began softly, walking her along some of the bits he could agree with, but then he took her along a side road of uncertainty and  skilfully, and without raising his voice, he insistently pressed his points home, then quietly and metaphorically ripped her arm off and beat her with the soggy end. There is not a lot of point going into the details here, but clearly he put a lot of doubt into the inspector's mind about Fylde's principal claim that the site was not sustainable.

He - we were going to say bullied, but that's not really fair - pressed his argument insistently , very cleverly, and firmly, until what showed was an officer doing her level best, but being outgunned by a more powerful force.

It wasn't that Kensington's arguments were right, just that they successfully exposed some flaws in the alternative analysis she had done, and they made it seem they had discredited her whole process because of that.

She would no doubt have been grateful when the ordeal was over and the Inspector put less challenging questions to her, all of which were dealt with competently, before FBC's own Barrister asked some questions to help salvage what was left of Julie's evidence to the inquiry.

At this point we broke for lunch.

On resumption the Inspector began a curious - and to us almost unnecessary - discourse about whether there would be bus stops and where, if there were any, they might be located, and whether the highway authority would have difficulty in agreeing to them being installed.

We spent about 25 minutes on this which - it seemed - was as baffling each of the barristers as much as it was us. The unfortunate effect of this was to suggest (to us at least) that, if the inspector was working out where the bus stops should go, he'd pretty much made his mind up there would be a bus, which pretty much leads to the view he's made his mind up that there needs to be one, and thus the appeal will be allowed. We hope that's not the case, but at this point it had that sort of feel.

After this omnibus overture, Tony Donnelley took the stand. We know Tony of old as well. He is - in our view - astute, quick witted, sometimes arrogant but very capable. He is a good policy planner (even if we sometimes disagree with his policies).

His role was to present Fylde's case in policy terms for the inspector not to approve the appeal. Broadly this involves going line by line through Government edicts and Fylde's own stated policies to show whether or not this site meets the criteria they set or not.

A second and more difficult angle is where policies are in conflict, or where some are 'new' and some are 'old' its his job (at Fylde) to decide how much weight (credibility) should be given to each. The latter is again hugely subjective.

Essentially Kensington's barrister lobbed grenade after grenade and Tony batted them away to the side.

At some times it seemed he was disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing, but in reality that wasn't the case. The barrister was putting half stories and half truths and saying you'd agree with that wouldn't you (as he had done with Julie), but was always ready to spin a "yes" into a complete abandonment of Tony's argument half a minute later.

Tony has a wise old head on him and could see these coming and for the most part he wouldn't be led astray. Once or twice we saw his exasperation as he wasn't allowed to condition or expand the answer he had given, But even more often we saw Kensington's barrister say "well we'll leave it to the inspector to draw his own conclusions from you unwillingness to give an answer to the question I asked (rather than the broader, more comprehensive answer Tony had given).

At one point the Inspector seemed to chide Tony for being too guarded in his answers, but we thought he did a solid job. That said, he did concede a few things we would not have agreed to.

We think he fell into a trap by seeming to agree that because the Local Plan was prepared at a time when the housing rules from Government were different, it invalidated all the Housing policies AND the weight to be attached to settlement policies SP1 and SP2  (the ones that limit development to existing built up areas), and most of the rest of the plan.

We would have preferred a more robust defence of the Local Plan and an answer that the Local Plan is still in force, and until it is replaced we will continue to rely on it and full weight should be attached to it. Instead there was acceptance that the Local Plan was of limited weight.

Also there was (or at least appeared to be) acceptance that the Interim Housing policy can have no weight attached to it because it is not a  formal planning policy document and has not been subject to consultation.

So a few of Kensington's grenades exploded amid the tetchy argument, and a lot of very technical points were claimed and counterclaimed.

One crucial explosion was when Kensington's Barrister said in exasperation that they had lodged an appeal on the Queensway site based on the fact that Fylde had not decided the Queensway application within the time they were allowed to do so. He said "So now we have to go to appeal on that site.  He added that "Natural England have said they did not find the application acceptable"

We think the QED Group opposing Queensway will be delighted at this news.

The point he was making was that this meant the Queensway site of 1,150 houses would no longer figure as a possible solution for Fylde's housing shortfall within the next five years.

He also rubbished the Growth Point scheme, dismissing a letter from the Growth Point consultants who explained that all their scenarios for the M55 Hub have this land at Hollywood Nurseries zoned for employment not residential use. He rubbished it because there had been no formal publication of any plan, no adoption of such a plan, no consultation on such a plan, and in the end Tony had to agree the letter from the Growth point consultants had no real weight at this point in time.

And so the afternoon wore on. Heavy challenges, stonewalling, occasional explosions, much criticism of Fylde for not having its core strategy in place. He summed up by saying in effect - your brief is postulated on the belief there is no public transport and now there is so your argument fails.

Again, the inspectors questions, and Fylde's own Barrister's re-examination when it came will have seemed like light relief for him.

And so ended the first day.

We would have liked to have seen more support for the Council's officers. Mark Evans, head of planning was only there for half an hour, and no other officers turned up to sit in the public gallery and listen or watch. This is perhaps a sign of just how few people remain at Fylde doing the daily grind.

We'll bring you tomorrow tomorrow, and we'll see whether Fylde's diminutive blonde barrister has her own supply of dynamite. We pretty much hope she does. We think she might need it

 

DAY TWO: 7 MAY 2009
We began on time with the deposit of a Section 106 agreement and the definition of a bus (not less than 24 seats), and confirmation that the proposed bus would not have 'bus stops' but would be a stop-on-demand service.

Then Mr Delaney from Lambert Smith Hampton, took the stand. A specialist in sustainable developments and apparently a resident of Liverpool or its environs, he was Kensington's counterpart to Julie Glaister. He was led by Kensington's wolf-in-sheep's-clothing barrister who went first to the matter of flooding. He was trying to find reasons that would completely exclude some of the sites Fylde had scored well for sustainability, and thus make the Hollywood Nurseries site  look better.

Under questions, Mr Delaney confirmed that so far as the Sustainability Appraisal was concerned, greenfield sites with an inappropriate flood risk go out of the window before you actually get to the sustainability test. He also argued that biodiversity issues should be regarded likewise.

In answer to questions about the scoring system he'd used to evaluate sustainability for a number of sites, he said he used that system because clients liked it and in his experience it was well accepted.

He sometimes appeared hesitant and nervous.

Then he was cross-examined by Fylde's diminutive blonde barrister. We waited with bated breath (as no doubt did Mr Delaney) to see if she would unsheath a jugular-seeking set of claws.

No such luck I'm afraid.

What we did get was very competent body punching, with good point scoring performance. But no knockout blows were landed.

An occasional left hook livened up the proceedings but if she wins the case for Fylde it will be on points, not on a knockout.

She extracted from Mr Delaney the answer that the sustainability report had been commissioned by Kensington and it had actually been prepared for the Queensway site, but was being used here. She accepted the methodology for the appraisal was as agreed by the Council and it was as set out in the Hyder report.

She asked Mr Delaney to confirm it had 22 objectives, and that, so far as this site was concerned, there were two objectives ('Improving access' and 'promote sustainable transport') which were the key issues for sustainability (as opposed, for example, to the objective of reducing the fear of crime).

She then asked him to confirm he had used symbols to indicate the severity of the impact that each of the 16 sites in the matrix would have on the various objectives. He did so. He was then asked to confirm that he had then applied a score to each symbol to give a numeric result overall. Again he did.

She then said "Is it right that the numeric system was not in the Hyder report? (Yes) and that it was not agreed with the Council? (Hesitant Yes). So after allocating numbers, you just added them and the sub-objectives up? (Yes).

So high scores in some and low scores in others might balance themselves out. (Yes). So it's true to say if some were more important than others, they might be balanced out by others that are less important (Yes). And it's true to say that you've given no weight to particular objectives (Correct), so all 22 objectives have been given the same weight (Yes)."

By now you can see where this was leading, and she went to take ten minutes of illustrating inconsistencies in Mr Delaney's scoring between individual sites, concluding by saying she didn't want to do a point-by-point analysis, but she did believe the process he had used for scoring had been entirely subjective and thus unreliable.

She went on to ask Mr Delaney to confirm that the top three of the sixteen sites in the scoring matrix were all owned by Kensington. He did.

Were any of the other sites owned by Kensington (No)

She went on with this body punching, scoring very solid points which might, or might not, have scored with the inspector.

Her case - as it developed - was heavily reliant on proving that the sites did not meet sustainability criteria, and so this development was all dependent on the bus service - which didn't go to a railway station, or a doctor, or a dentist or a secondary school. All seemed to be going well until in re-examination Kensington's barrister pointed out that the bus service they were providing would go along Common Edge Road and that had bus stops for other services going to all sorts of places, so the lack of a *direct* bus service was no impediment to access.

Like we said, a steady rein of body blows but no knockout punch and no savaging of witnesses.

In the mid morning break there was a heated debate about the wording of the Section 106 agreement about whether it should say "a convenience store" or "the convenience store" and similar arcane but seemingly contentious issues.

Then Kensington's chief witness Mr Mackateer took the stand going through their version of what Tony Donnelley had covered yesterday.

There was much talk of housing land supply availability, and whether "paragraph 71" did or did not impose an additional presumption for development, and whether any weight could be attached to Policy SP1 and SP2 (which limit development to the existing settlement boundaries), and if so how much.

Fylde's barrister was on the backfoot sometimes, but wouldn't drop the view that although the local plan was out of date in many respects, SP1 and SP2 were still material considerations and had at least some weight. She forced an agreement that SP2 was relevant but could not secure an admission that material weight should be attached to it.

There was some discussion about whether there would or should be a play area for the residents of the new area and some minor points, but that more or less concluded Mr Mackateer's evidence under cross examination.

In his re-examination Kensington's barrister seemed to undo much of Fylde's good work when he asked "With Fylde's settlement limiting policy SP2 as it stands, can the Regional Spatial Strategy Policy LP4 (which required numbers of houses to be built), be satisfied (No). So if two policies like this are in conflict, which one takes precedence? (The regional one).

So concluded the session.

The inspector was off for lunch, and to drive the bus route and around the general area to get a feel for what it was like. The barristers were asked to get their closing statement together for 4pm when the Inquiry would reconvene to hear them. He especially wanted to have them in writing if possible.

To be honest, we didn't stay for the closing speeches. Having heard the arguments for two days we figure we could pretty much have written the closing speeches anyway. The inspector was probably in the same position.

We got the impression that it was his first Inquiry or at least he had not done too many previously, so he will probably do a good technical analysis and arrive at logical conclusions. That might favour Fylde. But if the outcome was to be decided on the performance of the people involved we'd probably plump for Kensington.

Not that we want that decision to happen. The Hollywood site deserves proper consideration for itself, but the wider implication this decision will have for many future greenbelt sites on the urban fringe will be significant - which is why this decision is more important than it appears.

The inspector will cogitate on the issues and pronounce in some weeks time. We'll bring you the result when we have it

Dated:  7 May 2009


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