The High Court judge hearing the case between Hale Bank Parish and Halton Borough councils said he was 'baffled' that developer Prologis had not referred to key policy in its planning application for a 1.2m sq ft warehouse.
The two-day hearing at the High Court in Manchester opened on Monday. The first day was spent on the claimant's argument, put by Dan Kolinsky of Landmark Chambers, on behalf of Hale Bank Parish Council. Hale Bank is challenging the decision by Halton Council to grant approval in August 2011 for the warehouse.
Hale Bank has three main arguments. Firstly, that the Unitary Development Plan for Halton stated the Mersey Multimodal Gateway, or 3MG, logistics park in Ditton, Widnes should be delivered in phases; brownfield land first, before greenfield. Hale Bank says this phasing order is not being followed. The Prologis site in question is greenfield, uncontaminated land, there remains undeveloped brownfield land, the claimant argues. Secondly, Hale Bank argued that the UDP said the green belt site can only be released for rail freight development, which Kolinsky says the Prologis scheme is not. Thirdly, Hale Bank argued that the timing of the public consultation into the planning application, held in late July and August 2011, was not fair and effective, and against government guidance on public consultation, as it was held in a summer or Christmas holiday. Hale Bank did not meet in August and requested an adjournment of the planning decision by Halton to seek professional advice, which Halton rejected. Halton brought the planning committee meeting forward from September to August to speed up the decision as Amazon, the end user lined up by Prologis, had a deadline to be operational by October 2012 otherwise it would take its warehouse and proposed 1,000 jobs elsewhere.
Halton, the land owner, wished to make a quick decision about the application to secure Amazon's regional distribution centre. The deal for Prologis to develop the site for Amazon was called Project Tiger, the court heard.
Kolinsky said the application by Prologis did not refer to the UDP condition of phasing brownfield sections of Ditton ahead of greenfield. He added that the Halton planning officer's report to the planning committee had 'air-brushed out' analysis of conditions set in the UDP.
His Hon Judge Gilbart QC, hearing the case, said: "I find it quite baffling that a professional developer of the size of Prologis did not address the most important planning policy [regarding the application]. It's sad."
Halton's planners said in witness statements there can be flexibility in the phasing of the development of the logistics park next to the Mersey.
The judge twice likened this idea of flexible phasing to Eric Morecambe playing Grieg's piano concerto – a reference to the episode of Morecambe & Wise in 1971 when Morecambe attempts to play Grieg for pianist and conductor Andre Previn. Previn complains he is playing all the wrong notes but Morecambe declares that he is in fact playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.
In an earlier phase of 3MG, a large chilled warehouse was built on brownfield land by Stobart for Tesco. Stobart plans to expand development onto a neighbouring brownfield site within 3MG and secured consent for 1.4m sq ft in May this year.
The court heard there were 548 objections to Prologis's planning application for the greenfield site. Consent was granted by Halton Council, which would lease the land to Prologis, at a special planning meeting on 30 August.
Halton Council, represented by Vincent Fraser QC of Kings Chambers in Manchester, argued that the statutory 21 days public consultation was met in full. Fraser will put the defence's case on Tuesday, when he is expected to argue that Hale Bank is without lawful authority to bring the proceedings.
On the issue of rail freight development, Fraser QC, for Halton Council, said the Tesco phase was served by rail from the West Coast Main Line and this could potentially serve the whole 3MG, with rail freight taken between trains and warehouses by lorry. He conceded at the moment there was no rail traffic to Tesco's warehouse but talks were ongoing with distributors in Valencia, Spain over initiating services.
The administrative hearing is taking place at Manchester Civil Justice Centre, sitting as the High Court.
The hearing continues.