Delays in approving 5.3m sq ft of logistics development on Green Belt land in Bolton, Wigan and St Helens are preventing the region from capitalising on unprecedented levels of demand, experts warned.
The Government has called in Harworth Group’s West of Wingates, a proposed 1m sq ft industrial scheme in Bolton; Parkside Colliery, a 1m sq ft project to be delivered by St Helens Council and developer Langtree; Peel L&P and PLP’s 1.8m sq ft Haydock Point in St Helens; and Tritax Symmetry’s 1.4m sq ft Symmetry Park in Wigan.
“Had they been allowed last year there would have been stuff already up, built and let on all of those schemes, and [the fact that they’re not yet approved] is going to have an impact on supply moving forward,” said Rob Taylor, head of industrial at Cushman & Wakefield.
However, speaking at a recent Place North West event, Taylor pointed to a flipside – that “blue-collar” towns in Lancashire, including Burnley, Preston and Blackburn, could benefit from planning delays on such large-scale schemes as developers hunt for land elsewhere in the region.
Last year, 5.6m sq ft of industrial and logistics space was transacted in the North West, according to Cushman & Wakefield – representing an increase of 17% year-on-year. The surge was driven by changing consumer habits amid the pandemic, however supply shortages caused by planning hold-ups are increasingly becoming a concern for agents and developers alike, Taylor said.
As well as the four schemes awaiting a decision from the planning inspectorate, several other large-scale employment developments have been blocked in recent months, heaping added strain on an already scant supply of industrial accommodation in the North West.
For example, Liberty Properties Developments and Eddie Stobart’s plans for 650,000 sq ft distribution hub in Warrington were refused last November, while Stockport Council recently voted against plans for a 1m sq ft extension to Bredbury Industrial Estate.
Both schemes were refused due to the perceived harm they would cause to designated Green Belt.
St Helens, which is waiting for the outcome of Government call-ins of two major employment schemes, could also miss out on an opportunity to create much-needed jobs after a pandemic-hit year.
“It is hugely frustrating,” said Lisa Harris, executive director of place at St Helens Council, also speaking at Place North West‘s Industrial + Logistics event at the end of last month. “Financially we are facing some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced,”
“Green Belt development is a sensitive issue and we have to listen to local residents but it is all about balance. We are in a post-pandemic world and we know that the economy is going to be hit hard and we have to recover quickly.”
One way to make the issue of Green Belt less of a deciding factor in planning disputes is to better educate politicians and the public about the benefits of the sector, including its potential to lead improvements in real estate sustainability, and to create jobs, experts at the event agreed.
“People take a dim view and see industrial development as dirty, but sustainability is here to stay [because] investors want it,” Taylor said. “We have work to do to convince people that the industry can develop sustainably and that it wants to.”
But for some people, development in the Green Belt will always be seen as an affront on open green space, regardless of the number of jobs a scheme could create for local people or a project’s eco credentials.
“People see Green Belt as a holy shrine that should never be touched,” noted Paul Martin, head of development at Firethorn Trust.
“[But] it was allocated to prevent urban sprawl. In terms of logistics, you are looking at motorway junctions. If you use common sense, [you can see that] that’s not valuable green space as it has already been degraded by the motorway. Efforts need to be made to change public opinion.”
The outcome of the four planning inquiries are expected to help to clarify the Government’s stance on the competing issues of Green Belt preservation and economic development, but even if each of the schemes is refused, there will likely come a time when demand reaches a point where the dam breaks, the industry experts said.
“I don’t want vast swathes of concrete all over the countryside but there is a real strain on opportunities for future employment land,” Taylor said.
“We are going to have to see some Green Belt land taken up by urban logistics and distribution. It’s going to have to be the case. It’s inevitable.”