Test Valley Borough Council's Development Control Committee overturned the decision of the Northern Area Planning Committee in September, and granted approval for Goodmans' Plans for a Megashed on the site of Andover Airfield.
The sixteen members of the Committee voted by 12 votes to 4 to approve the plans, after the Chairman Marion Kerley, who did not vote, announced that she too was in favour. This overturned the earlier decision, which rejected the plans by 13 votes to 12.
The meeting began at 5.30 and ended shortly before 9.30.
"This was a bit like Groundhog Day. Many of us had sat through the debate on the same application three months ago, and had listened to the same presentations by the same officers. However, a different mix of councillors came up with a different answer. I think there were three reasons for this."
"First, Northern Area Planning was comprised of councillors from in and around Andover - where the impact of the proposals will be felt more sharply. Development Control had councillors from further afield who could look at it from a different perspective. Second, in the past three months there has been a significant downturn in the economy, and councillors are more worried about the recession and the loss of local jobs than they were in the summer. And, finally, Goodmans had listened to the earlier debate and made some amendments to their plans. Two councillors who voted against in September had changed their minds by December."
At the beginning of the meeting, the Chairman, Cllr Marion Kerley, warned the audience that those responsible for disruptive behaviour would be removed. This sanction was not required and the meeting was orderly, with occasional outbursts of applause from members of the STOP and GO campaigns.
The Head of Planning, Madalene Winter, told councillors that they were not judging a public referendum, but determining a planning application in accordance with policy.
The case officer, Jason Owen, then described the nature of the application in similar terms to his presentation in September, but highlighting the differences. This ended with a two and a half minute film provided by Goodmans, which gave a virtual tour of the site. It brought home the sheer length of the shed, but cruising round the site some distance off the ground, underplayed the height of the building.
He was followed by Steven Jenkins who spoke about the traffic implications. He argued that there was capacity on the A303 to accommodate the traffic generated by the site, and reminded the committee of the existing planning permission. He said that the proposed improvements to the roundabout would increase its overall capacity, even after the traffic generated by the development was taken into account. There would be an increase from 400 to 1700 in the number of HGV movements per day, over what the existing planning consent would have generated. He said that the cost of the improvements to the roundabout was £8m, and they would have to be completed before the development could open for business. £2 million would be invested in local transport schemes, and there would be a £500 penalty for each breach in the restrictions to be imposed. (These are 65 vehicles to leave the site each hour; and a ban on the use of routes other than the A303, apart from traffic going to local stores.)
With two breaches per day, this could generate £2.2m per year in fines. An exception was made for the A338 through Shipton Bellinger because this was a strategic road. Goodmans had offered to cap the number of lorries using this road to 7 per hour.
David Gleave, Economic Development Officer from TVBC, spoke on the employment implications. There would be 5 thousand more homes in the Major Development Area to the east of Andover, leading to 6 thousand more economically active individuals in the town. The 2500 jobs provided on the site (including Phase 2) were needed. This was not a suitable site for office location; there had been attempts to market it as such in the 1990's and these had failed. The construction costs of £120m would help the local economy, and he said the development would "act as a magnet" for other developments. The multiplier effect would generate an additonal 750 jobs.
(I have to say I found this part of the presentation deeply depressing. There was no recognition of the analysis in the Andover Vision document of the need to rebalance Andover's economy; no recognition that average wages in the town are way below the Hampshire average; and no admission that young people in the town aspire to a broader range of jobs than those currently available; and no determination to get out and market the site aggressively. There was a rather defeatist view that Andover had always done distribution and this was its role in the future.)
Councillors then had the opportunity to ask a range of questions.
Councillor Gates said the A303 was operating below capacity and Andover needed the jobs. The acoustic treatment promised by the developer would mitigate any increase in noise because of increased traffic. Cllr Hatley said there would be more traffic if there were offices on the site.
Asked if the developer could apply to have the cap on vehicles leaving the site lifted after 5 years, Madalene Winter replied that they could, but she expected that the planning authority would maintain the cap if the need was the same then as it was now. Councillors asked about the contingency plans to improve the sliproad on to the eastbound A303 and officers replied that the plans were there, but in their view were unlikely to be needed.
The questioning was informed and sustained.
There then followed two presentations by local councillors - one for and one against.
Speaking against, Cllr Arthur Peters asked why it was necessary to revisit the decision reached by NAPC. Of the 13 councillors who voted against, 8 were urban councillors, and 5 rural, so it was not a case of town against country. NAPC had given valid reasons for turning down the application, and for sticking to the proposals for a mixed business park.
Putting the contrary view, Cllr Hawke said that drivers would respect the barred routes. The town needed the jobs, and the world needed distribution systems like the proposed Megashed.
Two representatives from the parish councils then spoke, Katrina Saville and Rhonda Smith. Katrina Saville argued that a shed the size and scale of this one needed to be near a motorway in a logistics park, and Rhonda Smith said that the STOP campaign had run a fact-based, hard-hitting, independently financed campaign that had subjected the application to exhaustive scrutiny. She wanted jobs on the site, but jobs provided by a mixed use business park
Gerald Knight of Goodmans spoke in favour of the scheme, with Karen Nightingale from the Go Campaign. She described the development as "a great leap forward" for Andover. In an important exchange between Goodmans and councillors, Goodmans explained that they had ended their contract with Tescos because Tescos were entering into direct negotiations with TVBC. Goodmans were insistent that that they should control the site and the negotiations, and they were content with the routing agreements they had entered into. If consent was granted, they might have further discussions with Tescos, or with other operators. They believed Tescos were still interested in coming to Andover, and said that the proposed building would last 35 to 40 years.
The meeting adjourned for a 20 minute break at 8.13 and resumed at 8.33.
Those councillors who wanted to speak then spoke for 5 minutes. Cllr Neale said he would vote against. He wanted a different mix of businesses, and said that the distance between the slip roads to 100 Acre roundabout and to the Salisbury Road was below standard, leading to problems of weaving. He was shocked by the scale of the building, which he thought detrimental to the landscape and unimpressed by what he had seen at Hatfield.
Cllr Dowden said people needed the jobs, and the application conformed with policy. The noise measures would help properties affected, and he believed the development would have minimal impact on those in Red Post Lane. Cllr Hope restated the case for the proposals as presented by Goodmans; and Cllr Gates said the wrong decision had been taken last time. He thought the building was well designed, and fitted in with Andover. It was a good proposal that would round off development in the town and there was 50% capacity on the A303. It would be foolish to turn the application down, and it would be a change for the better.
Clr Brooks said she would vote against because of the impact on people in Red Post Lane. Cllr Hatley said that changes had been made to the application, and he had been impressed by what he had seen at Hatfield (a mixed use business park operated by Goodmans, near the junction of the A1(M)
Cllr Janet Whiteley said she was pro-growth and pro-development, in view of the increase in population in her ward. Cllr Neville Whiteley complimented the STOP campaign, and welcomed the debate. He would support the application as it accorded with the council's policy.
Cllr McGarry said he had opposed the application last time, but he would support it this time. It was a complicated application; while it had some damaging implications, these had been mitigated. He welcomed the new roundabout and the investment in Andover.
Cllr Southern spoke against, saying there would be short-term gain and long-term pain. The megashed would be automated, leading to loss of jobs and the automated number plate recognition system was unenforceable.
Cllr Collier said he regretted the discourtesy to officers from some contributors. He applauded Goodmans for their efforts, saying they were doing more than was necessary. He believed the development would be good for Andover and said the opponents had got it wrong.
Finally Cllr Hibbert said that a single operator on the site was undesirable, and wanted a site with mixed skills.
Having listened to the whole of the debate, I was struck by the degree of reliance which many councillors placed on the view of officers. Many of the decisions were essentially ones of judgement, rather than ones that required professional expertise. On judgemental issues, councillors were entitled to come to their own independent view, but some appeared reluctant to do this.
Before the vote, Madalen Winter said it was still possible that GOSE would call in the application (I don't think they will) and there were some issues to be resolved with DEFRA.
The committee then voted 12 to 4 to approve the application.
My own view is that I remain to be convinced that this scheme will actually go ahead. It is clear that, as of now, Goodmans have no tenant. Without a tenant, will they invest £120 million in a speculative development,as the country moves into recession? Where will the funding come from? And will a tenant accept the restrictions that DCC has imposed? We know that Tesco's walked away from them two months ago, and the conditions are unprecedented.
The Committee may have taken a decision; but there is many a slip between cup and lip.