Halton defends action over Amazon shed

Halton council was right to take a quick decision to approve Prologis's proposed 1.2m sq ft warehouse for the retail giant on a greenfield site in Widnes to secure 1,000 jobs, a court heard on Tuesday.

The High Court judicial review between claimant Hale Bank Parish Council and defendant Halton Borough Council resumed for a second day on Tuesday. The case is being heard by His Hon Judge Gilbart QC in Manchester Civil Justice Centre.

Hale Bank argued on Monday that it did not benefit from fair and effective consultation into the planning application. A planning application was submitted by Prologis on 20 July 2011 and statutory notices published around the site and in local press in early August 2011. The statutory 21-day consultation period was observed but Hale Bank said they wanted longer to receive professional advice from a planning consultant. The parish council's request for Halton to postpone its planning committee meeting was refused. Halton granted consent for development on a greenfield site at the Mersey Multimodal Gateway (3MG) in Ditton on 30 August 2011.

Hale Bank called for a judicial review challenging the consent on policy and procedure grounds. Halton denies there were fundamental errors in awarding the planning permission.

On Tuesday, Vincent Fraser QC, representing Halton Council, said the opponents at Hale Bank Parish Council knew the sites well and had been 'agitating' against development for 12 years. Objections were historically brought by a residents' group called Friends of Hale Bank, set up in 2000. Hale Bank Parish Council was formed in 2008. Some members of Friends of Hale Bank became involved in Hale Bank Parish Council.

Fraser said the formal planning application was preceded in June 2011 by a newsletter distributed locally and a pre-planning consultation event held in Stobart Stadium showing the plans and therefore the parish council 'knew it was coming'. Fraser added: "It is quite plain that the parish council was well aware of matters, and had time to set in train what it needed to do."

Hale Bank had also argued that it did not meet in August and holding the consultation at a time of school holidays was unfair.

Fraser said council committee cycles are often longer than 21 days and therefore the parish council wouldn't necessarily have a meeting within 21 days, whatever the time of year.

It also could have called a special meeting but chose not to and was 'not trying too hard' to hold a meeting, Fraser continued.

Fraser said Halton has discretion to call planning meetings when it wants. The local authority was 'entitled to have regard to adjourn but is not bound to'.

Fraser asserted that it was simple for Hale Bank to test whether preconditions in the Unitary Development Plan had been met and local people such as parish councillors who have been closely involved in development in the area were probably better able to answer the question than a planning consultant who would have to go away and do some research on it.

Friends of Hale Bank had objected to release of the site in question from green belt at the public inquiry into the UDP in 2003 and had also applied for a village green designation in the area on a separate occasion.

The public consultation arguments in court this week included lengthy discussion between Fraser, claimant representative Dan Kolinsky, and the judge over who took the decision not to adjourn Halton planning committee's meeting. Discussion touched on the constitution of the council and its schedule of delegated powers to officers. Tim Gibbs, Halton's manager of policy and development services, was cited as having taken the decision to refuse postponement of Halton's planning committee meeting but the judge questioned whether he had such power and asked for evidence of the power.

Fraser said there was no requirement for Halton to give reasons for the refusal to adjourn and it was not unreasonable for Halton to refuse the request within its discretion.

Fraser pointed out that Halton council chief executive, David Parr, had ordered officers to treat the Prologis development as a priority and deal with it as quickly as possible. Prologis and Amazon had set a strict deadline for starting operations, and told Halton the deal would be aborted if timings were not met.

The judge commented: "The point is that customers like Amazon are thin on the ground and therefore they have the advantage in the market."

He later added: "I don't think there's anything improper with a chief executive saying 'let's get on with this and this is important to our borough'."

As well as the issue of fair and effective consultation, Hale Bank argued in court on Monday that the development approach at 3MG was set out in the UDP, adopted in 2005, and should be phased in order of brownfield land first, followed later by greenfield land. The parish council claimed this was not properly analysed in Halton council's planning report to committee in summer 2011 and that the correct triggers in the UDP were not met.

The defence counsel Fraser told the court on Tuesday the UDP anticipated development of greenfield land as part of the overall development. He said the UDP was not to be taken as statute and remained open to interpretation later when it came to implementation. He referred to recent case law of Tesco Stores v Dundee City Council.

Towards the end of Tuesday's session the judge told Fraser he considered it fundamental whether Halton planning officer Glen Henry's report to the planning committee in 2011 'grappled' with the planning policies set out in the borough's UDP or not.

Fraser is due to resume his argument on Thursday when the hearing continues.

The High Court administrative hearing was due to conclude on Tuesday but sessions were curtailed as the judge had to attend to an urgent case in Manchester Crown Court, where he is a recorder. The case was adjourned at the close on Tuesday until 10am Thursday.

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