Amazon Widnes hearing closes

A decision is expected by the end of June in the judicial review into planning consent for a large warehouse for Amazon on the banks of the Mersey.

The high court hearing finished on Thursday after three days of argument by claimant Hale Bank Parish Council and defendant Halton Borough Council.

Thursday was spent mostly on the defendant's argument, presented by Vincent Fraser QC.

Fraser claimed Hale Bank Parish Council did not have the authority to oppose the planning application in July 2011 by developer Prologis for the 1.2m sq ft shed at Mersey Multimodal Gateway (3MG), Ditton. He argued that four of the Hale Bank five councillors lived in close proximity to the site and were opposing the planning application to protect the value of their houses.

Development could lower their house prices and such financial interest made Hale Bank members biased and the resolution void as they did not declare their interests when opposing the plans, Fraser said. Hale Bank counsel Dan Kolinsky denied there was any conspiracy among Hale Bank members.

The Thursday morning session finished with His Hon Judge Andrew Gilbart QC asking Fraser which law he was relying on in his argument over declaration of interests.

Fraser said he was not sure which act and deliberately had not quoted an act because he thought the court could spend too long on the point.

The judge told Fraser: "If you say it is a knock-out blow don't I have to understand the strength of your punch?"

After lunch, Fraser told the judge it was the Local Government Acts 1972 and 2000, relating to district council standards and declarations of interest.

Fraser also addressed the crucial point of whether the phasing of development was set down in Halton's planning policy and properly explained in planning officer Glen Henry's report to the planning committee.

Fraser said there had been activity on the two brownfield sites with a Tesco warehouse completed and rail sidings upgraded in readiness for future freight traffic through 3MG.

In addition, there was not room elsewhere on the site to accommodate a 1m sq ft warehouse, Fraser said.

Responding, Kolinsky, representing Hale Bank, said Stobart had recently gained consent for more than 1m sq ft of development on its brownfield land at 3MG, albeit not in a single unit but rather two units.

Fraser said the 3MG masterplan set out a vision for comprehensive development of the whole site and to develop parts in a 'piecemeal fashion would be the opposite of doing it in a comprehensive manner'.

Fraser argued there was an existing planning permission for an extension to rail sidings which included land in the greenfield site in question. Kolinsky argued back that the sidings allocation related only to a small part of the greenfield site and the rest of the land was protected by planning conditions which had not been met.

The judge repeatedly asked for the status of the Halton masterplan Fraser referred to and questioned whether it was part of the Supplementary Planning Document for 3MG.

The claimant also complained that the development agreement between Halton council, the land owner and planning authority, and developer Prologis was private and had not been made a public Section 106 document instead.

Fraser said the fact Halton owned the land made it pointless to draw up a section 106 as it would only be agreeing with itself.

In his closing argument Fraser said the claimant, Hale Bank, had unlawfully delayed the development of the Amazon shed, jeopardising the investment by Amazon and Prologis and creation of 1,000 jobs. Kolinsky said the parish council had acted swiftly at every stage of the legal challenge and not delayed the procedure unduly.

His Hon Judge Andrew Gilbart QC chose not to make a verbal judgment immediately after the conclusion of the hearing. He also asked both sides to make written submissions in the next fortnight on a particular point of law that had not been clearly dealt with on Thursday, concerning declaration of financial interests.

Hale Bank challenged Halton council's decision in August 2011 to grant approval and brought judicial review proceedings on several grounds. Hale Bank members said they were not given fair and effective time to consult a planning expert on the application, that the greenfield site cannot be developed before brownfield parts of 3MG and that it is not rail served as required by Halton's unitary development plan. Halton denies there was fundamental error in the granting of planning consent.

The protected costs that each side face if it loses were extended due to the hearing running to a third day, one extra day than envisaged. Hale Bank's costs would be capped at £8,500 and Halton's at £25,500.

Gilbart said he hoped to publish his written judgment by the end of June.

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Wonderful to see some excellent court reporting, a rare thing: think we can all guess now what the judge will say….

By David Thame

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