Next campaign – a letter to councillors

This letter was written by a member of the public and sent to their District Councillors, with a copy sent to our MP, Eleanor Laing.

The letter covers a lot of ground, largely procedural and legislative issues, which you could find interesting.

There are several acronyms, initialisms and unusual terms which we’ve included in a glossary after the letter

Please note: this letter as written in a personal capacity by a member of the public and is posted here for information purposes only – the opinions expressed don’t necessarily reflect those of Waltham Abbey Community Campaigns.

Next plc Distribution Centre – Waltham Abbey (Application Number EPF/1413/18)

It is with regret that I write to bring the above planning application in relation to Quinton Hill Farm to your serious attention. This represents a major development scheme on 55 acres of Green Belt land that has the potential to cause significant damage and legal expense unless refused at the earliest possible opportunity.

The applicants claim the proposal brings substantial economic benefits and new jobs. Sadly the economic benefits and jobs are non-existent and the project is in fact a relocation of their current depots in Ockendon and Hemel Hempstead. Rather than new jobs this relocation project is more likely to result in net job losses. Even if it could be argued that new jobs could be created these are mainly of the low-skilled low-paid variety meaning the employees would be reliant on social housing with its associated financial burden on the local authority. Any approval of this planning application without a Section 106 agreement to pay for the additional housing and schooling would effectively represent a subsidy to Next plc (which falls foul of EU legislation on State Aid).

The application itself is riddled with errors and omissions. The main project is a regional distribution centre for Next plc which will require over 700 HGV movements per day and over 1000 other vehicles. This will cause a marked reduction in air quality meaning government targets for improvement will be missed again. Next have not even submitted an HGV Routing Plan which is a minimum requirement for applications such as this.

The application covers Phases 1 and 2 for industrial development of 30 acres of farmland. The application is silent on the developer’s plans for the other 25 acres of the site. The developer acknowledges that the proposals represent inappropriate development but places heavy reliance on the draft Local Plan whilst ignoring the fact that the plan has not yet reached the examination stage and has already been evaluated as unsound by statutory consultees. Just to be clear, the very special circumstances to justify removal of the site from Green Belt have not been demonstrated, the proposal is not consistent with government policy and NPPF guidelines and certainly not consistent with the Conservative party manifesto pre-election pledge to protect the Green Belt.

The shortcomings of the application are too numerous to go into but to give you an idea they include the following: No EAI Non-Technical Summary; No HGV Routing Plan; Incomplete Ecological Survey; Landscape Impact Assessment excludes key aspects; Noise assessment artificially reduced by excluding pile driving works; Vague references to future development and possible changes; Worst case construction programme not included; No risk assessment performed on COMAH high pressure gas pipeline; No risk assessment for HGV access; No Climate Change Study.

Of further concern are the pre-application meetings that have gone on that have given local residents the perception that this is a done-deal. The so called “Community Involvement” stage consisted of a power point presentation held 3 days before the application was submitted. None of the concerns raised at the meeting were addressed by the developer further fuelling local feelings that it was merely a box-ticking exercise. The developer has gone to the trouble of commissioning an EIA in early 2017 yet failed to apply to the council for a screening decision. The application has now been submitted but without clarifying if it is a formal EIA submission which requires a copy to be submitted to the Secretary of State. As a result of these and many other failings members of the public already have sufficient grounds to have this application called-in for a Public Inquiry.

In a legal context the application represents inappropriate development and would be in contravention of legislation covering protection of the Green Belt; protection of wildlife; protection of hedgerows; protection of health and not consistent with the objectives of the Climate Change Act. In addition the application is not compliant with EU legislation covering air quality, the duty to consult and preparation of EIAs. Some of these aspects would be a matter for the English courts to decide. However, certain matters are currently subject to EU law and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Even post-Brexit there are continued obligations under the Aarhus Convention, the Espoo Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. Due to the uncertainty over Brexit and applicable jurisdiction there could be a period of around two years of hearings needed before even agreeing which is the appropriate tribunal for the dispute to be resolved in. Clearly it is not an acceptable use of public funds for the council to be wasting legal fees in pursuing complex litigation which only benefits the developer.

It is unclear why Epping Forest council are so keen to support this development. The number of jobs have been over-stated and in any event they are of the low-paid variety which would only create a further burden on social housing. Perhaps they feel the promised £1.7m per year from business rates is attractive. The rates would not cover the costs of business lost due to increased road congestion and costs of additional housing and school places.

Worse still would be the consequences of corporate failure. The retail sector is currently in crisis and even firms such as M&S are struggling. You should take some time to review the balance sheet of Next and wonder not only how they intend to finance this project but how they could guarantee any ongoing Section 106 commitments. Most likely they have no intention of any long term commitment anyway and see this as an opportunity for a quick balance sheet return with a sale and leaseback. I suspect they have been looking enviously upon the Sainsbury depot nearby that was recently sold to an offshore investor for around £90m. On this basis the economics begin to make sense – at last it does if you are a shareholder of Next plc as they will be the only economic beneficiaries of this development.


Glossary

  • Aarhus Convention: European Union legislation which ensures:
    • the right of everyone to receive environmental information that is held by public authorities
    • the right to participate in environmental decision-making
  • ECJ: European Courts of Justice
  • EIA: Environmental Impact Assessment
  • Espoo Convention: European Union legislation which sets out the obligations of Parties to assess the environmental impact of certain activities at an early stage of planning.
  • HGV: Heavy Goods Vehicle
  • NPPF: National Planning Policy Framework
  • Section 106: payments made by a developer to mitigate against, or compensate for,  the impact(s) of a development. A local example is Tesco funding the medical centre.