Thursday, July 19, 2007

Start of Wickford Town Centre Procurement Process

Basildon Council Cabinet this evening, and we started the process to find a development partner for the project to redevelop Wickford Town Centre. The Cabinet supported the proposal, except for the Labour members, whose stance was articulated by their Deputy Leader. It was along the lines that because there were some local concerns at the Wickford Master Plan, upon which basis the redevelopment will occur, that we should not proceed. Of course, it is always vital to consult with local people and to take their wishes into account when regenerating the place where they live, but anyone who has ever been part of a large scale development project will know that there are always concerns. It is pretty difficult to keep everyone happy when building an extension to a house, never mind when hundreds of homes, shops and public facilitates are involved. If any opposition was the benchmark then nothing would ever get done, and it should be pointed out that the Council's surveys, and election results where independents have stood on an anti-development ticket, have showed a healthy majority in favour of a new medical centre, a new swimming pool and community centre as well as a better High Street and new homes in Wickford.

Anyway, Labour voted against and so the battle lines are pretty much drawn in Wickford. With Labour, developers would carry on cherry-picking the prime development sites on a piecemeal basis. With the Conservatives we get coherency in development, and public infrastructure gets constructed too. It is a bit odd though, Tories wanting central planning and the socialists of Basildon Labour in favour of a market free-for-all. I wonder what the people of Wickford will think of that.

5 comments:

John Rushton said...

Mr Horgan,
you say that it is always vital to consult with local people etc. What interpretation of the word 'vital' are you using here? I was at a public meeting in Wickford on 22 March organised by the Wickford Action Group to discuss the proposed Masterplan, and I seem to remember you and some other councillors promising that there would indeed be more 'consultation' with the residents. Not seen any evidence of that.

Also, the Action Group members who stood in the recent elections got over 30% of the vote, hardley a healthy majority for the tories, in an environment where a sheep painted blue would be elected, (and in some cases was)

And you mention the Medical Centre. This was turned down by the COUNCIL in favour of yet another block of flats (on the Frasier's site).

How can you say that labour would be cherry picking the sites, when at all the planning meetings I have attended, it is always the tories who give approval to these blocks of flats, and the others are against.

You have a strange way of interpreting what is happening around you Mr Horgan.

Steve Horgan said...

No-one from the 'Wickford Action Group' was at the Cabinet Meeting, which was odd given that it is a public meeting and the item on Wickford was on an agenda that is published in advance. Had anyone from the group turned up then they would have heard the matter of public consultation discussed at some length. This is also reflected in the minutes, which are published on the internet. The bottom line is that the resolution that enabled the start of the Wickford procurement also made further consultation Council policy and they will be proceeding in tandem.

It is not the case that Wickford automatically elects Conservatives, and the area has been represented by Liberal Democrats for considerable periods of time.

The Medical Centre has never come before the Council as a Planning Application. A doctor's surgery, which is not the same thing being on a much smaller scale, was part of a planning application for a mixed development that was turned down for good reason. That particular application is likely to be remedied and resubmitted.

It is not the Labour party that would cherry pick development sites, rather it would be developers. In the absence of a Master Plan then no-one would build a Swimming Pool, Medical Centre, Community Centre or any other public facility. Why would they? Instead the best development sites would be built on without any corresponding public infrastructure and that would be that. Planning Law would not allow the Council to stop that process, a Master Plan would, but as far as I can see the 'Wickford Action Group' is against that. I also note that those people in Wickford who are trying to defend the Barn Hall site from an unwelcome and speculative Planning Application take a very different view on the matter of Wickford development, and their views count too, you know.

john rushton said...

It was remiss of the Wickford Action Group not to have attended the Cabinet Meeting on 19th July, and we note in the minutes the resolution to 'further consultations and keep the public informed'. This is something we haven't experienced satisfactorily to date, and we look forward to hearing how you will implement this new consultation process. This highlights one of the reasons why the WAG was set up - to inform residents, many of whom do not have web access, of local planning activities. In the case of this meeting, we didn't succeed, but thanks for pointing it out - we will be there next time.

Wickford does seem to elect Conservatives, although the influx of 700 plus flats occupants could change that in the future I guess. But you will know about in-built voting preferences from your experience in Liverpool Walton in 2001, where you got 6%. Don't forget, the Independents in Wickford got 30% of the votes cast, quite an amazing result, and one which I'm surprised the council doesn't take more seriously.

You are wrong about the Medical Centre, with respect. Application 06/01301/FULL was submitted by Eastern Square for a Medical Centre with 30 sheltered housing units on the site of Frasier's Bar in London Road (the 'Southern Gateway' in the Masterplan). The WAG representatives expressed support, (yes - we don't oppose everything!), but it was refused on the casting vote of Mrs Buckley on 16th January. The developers then submitted another plan, for a taller block of 36 flats with 5 retail, and this was passed! Many people in Wickford regard this as a disgrace, as did the Echo report at the time.

We must not be explaining ourselves very well. We are NOT against a masterplan, this is a sensible way forward. But we are against YOUR masterplan, which we do not think is in the best interests of the existing and future residents. The Council's masterplan has been around for some time now, but it hasn't prevented the ad-hoc development applications for blocks of flats within the town centre being passed by the council. And most of these have not, despite your comments above, offered the improvements to the infrastructure that are needed.

Here's an example of where things are going wrong. At the cabinet meeting on 19th July, you publish the draft Procurement Strategy for a Development Partner to deliver the Master Plan. Like the original masterplan, this was produced by DTZ, and is painfully out of date. It is based on their Master Plan Version 3 published in 2005, where the housing unit total was 490. You revised that plan in 2006 with a new total of 598, and we believe that today it is more like 718! I hope that the draft is updated before you send it to the bidders! One of the reasons why we think that the master plan will not work is illustrated by the 'Riverside Living' area. This looks wonderful in the original plan (if you like 6 storey blocks of flats). It comprises two blocks, one in Lower Southend Road, and the other in Runwell Road. The strategy is that the developers, in return for permission to build the profitable blocks of flats, will make a substantial contribution to improve the infrastructure, and build the lovely tree lined avenues, picturesque riverside gardens, pretty market squares etc.etc. But these two blocks, 173 and 84 units, together with the 36 on the Frasier's site, make 293 approved housing units, which is 59% of the 490 in the Strategy document, ALL APPROVED, but where are the improvements? What is the point of now looking for a Development Partner when we are 59% into the plan. Hasn't the horse bolted?
The council could have fixed this by having an S106 policy that you said at the WAG public meeting on 22 March 2007 was in the process of being formulated. You really can’t blame anyone else for letting Basildon area residents down in this regard. Money is being thrown DTZ for masterplans that could have been better spent formulating an S106 policy that would apply to the whole district not just Wickford. All the land will be built on before there is one in place and thousands of pounds will be lost for infrastructure improvements, gate and horse bolting again!

With regard to the Barn Hall site, the Wickford Action Group are also opposed to it. Where we differ from Barn Hall Action group, is that they are supporting the Town Centre developments under the master plan, which is building on brownfield sites, and they think that this will save their ‘green’ area. This would be a reasonable argument if the developments were 'appropriate', which most of them definitely are not, being unsightly blocks of flats with no supporting infrastructure! The council will probably reject the application, but we believe it more than likely that it will be passed on appeal by the government inspector, particularly now that the new green paper on housing is published. In other words, we will get the masterplan AND the Barn Hall plan.
We also hold the view that the whole Barn Hall fiasco would not be taking place if the council had not let the land slip out of green belt protection and is now designated brownfield, an error which they are now belatedly attempting to rectify, but not in time for the first tranch of 200 houses unfortunately.

Mr Horgan, if there was one thing that you could do to help the residents of Wickford, it would be to find some way of informing people of what is happening to the town, and giving us the opportunity to give our opinions so that we can feel that our views count, which I understand is what you are doing in your own constituency of Billericay. If you don't want to face an open public meeting, can you think of some other way? I appreciate this blogging facility, but I can't imagine many people will read it, and it is not a satisfactory way of distributing information is it.

Respectfully yours,
John Rushton
Wickford Action Group

Steve Horgan said...

I really don’t want to get into electoral mathematics, but that there is concern about the emerging shape of Wickford is obvious, hence our resolution for more consultation.

The application on the London Road was primarily for sheltered housing. Of course we do need sheltered housing in Wickford, but that would have been an inappropriate location for it because it would have hindered that prime town centre area being developed for any kind of evening economy. Late-opening establishments do not sit well with sheltered housing for reasons that are perfectly obvious. The application included a doctor’s surgery, which would have been on a much smaller scale that the proposed medical centre. We are keen to get that as it is only something of that size that will remedy the appalling shortage of GP services in Wickford. The new application that you refer to is 07/00515/FULL, which has not yet been determined and this also includes two units that can be used as doctors’ or dentists’ surgeries as well as 36 flats for general occupation. If it is passed it will give us the medical facilities of the previous application but it won’t preclude other developments that would promote Wickford’s vitality. I am very surprised that you have misinformation on this matter as all of the documents are on the internet.

There appears to be a considerable misunderstanding about the Wickford Masterplan and how planning works in general. The basis for English planning law is that development is allowed, unless there is a good reason why not. The Council cannot stop legal development, nor can we extract punitive s106 monies from them in order to build infrastructure. The only way to make matters more coherent is to adopt a planned approach and to use Council land assets, which we have done with the Wickford Masterplan. Even after repeated contacts with your group I cannot grasp what the real issue is. A Masterplan is the only way to stop ad-hoc development, but it does that primarily through its own development programme, which requires a developer, which requires a procurement process, which is what we are doing.

On housing numbers it is important to realise that the Masterplan does not cover all of Wickford, nor does it seek to reflect the entirety of development in Wickford. Housing numbers in it are indicative in any case as it does not include definitive plans for specific developments. The overall housing numbers for the District are dictated by the government and the Council handles that via our Local Development Framework process. By the way the only party that thinks the government should not be imposing housing totals on local communities is the Conservative Party, and if we win the next General Election that will end. Until then we have to manage within the system invented by the Labour Party, and believe me we don’t have the option of telling them to shove off. I wish we did.

We do need a better s106 policy, and we are sorting that out. However, we need much more investment in Wickford infrastructure than any legal s106 agreements on ad-hoc development would get us. We can’t just ask for as much as we like for any purpose that we like from a development. Unreasonable demands would be subject to legal action, which we would lose.

Barn Hall is not designated brownfield, again misinformation that just adds to people’s confusion in Wickford. It was designated as a special reserve area for housing by a Labour Council in the late 1990s and we are seeking to return it to the Green Belt. However, the government-designed process for this is painfully slow and an opportunistic developer has moved in. They will argue that Barn Hall is the only way for Basildon to meet its government-imposed housing numbers. One argument against will certainly be the housing provision in Wickford Town Centre, which you oppose.

What is happening in Billericay is that a coalition of residents’ organisations, led by the Town Council, is developing a Town Design Statement. In this they have the full support of Basildon District Council, but they are the ones taking the initiative. Billericay is also under a great deal of development pressure, but the situation there is different, particularly because Billericay High Street functions much better than Wickford’s equivalent and has much higher quality buildings. We don’t think we need a Masterplan there.

There will certainly be further consultation in Wickford, and I don’t just mean one public meeting, because we need both to give out information and to get people’s views. What I want to do though is to do it on the back of some specifics, by which I mean specific plans, and not just to talk about generalities. I hope to be able to do that quite soon.

john rushton said...

Thank you for the response, but you seem to have missed or misinterpreted every single point I made in my last note. I can see why you stood for parliament, you would have made a good politician, being adept at avoiding answering direct questions and changing the subject.

I won’t repeat all of my arguments again, but there are two points that can’t go un-responded.

First, the Medical Centre. The London Road application 06/01301/FULL was for a medical centre with 30 sheltered housing units in a 4 storey block. The planning officers recommended approval, as did a number of residents, including the Wickford Action Group. The medical centre would have re-housed an existing doctor’s surgery in London Road, and would have also had X-Ray, blood testing and physiotherapy facilities (we understand from the developer). This facility is needed in Wickford. Despite the planning department recommendation, the application was turned down on the casting vote of Mrs Buckley. The meeting minutes (16 January 07) note that there is an over provision of sheltered accommodation in Wickford, a view that Mr and Mrs Buckley have expressed subsequently, although I note your comments that “of course we do need sheltered housing in Wickford”. Is this discrepancy in council policy or Conservative policy?

The developer then submitted another application, 07/00515/FULL for a larger 5 storey block with 36 housing units and 5 retail, with the note that one of the retail units would be suitable for a doctor or a dentist. At the planning meeting on 3 July 07 this was approved by 4 votes to 1. I can understand your confusion in thinking that this has not been decided, because of the misinformation on the council website, which has this application as ‘pending’, but those present at the meeting, and the meeting minutes, confirm the voting figures. There are a number of other errors on the council website, as indeed I expect there are on ours, so it is always best to check wherever possible.

Secondly, on the subject of S106 agreements you say “nor can we extract punitive s106 monies from them (developers) in order to build infrastructure” Requesting money for additional school places, or more than one parking space per dwelling (as other councils manage) and similar basic infrastructure costs are not punitive. If you need some help in formulating an S106 policy you can look at what other councils require on their websites, Chelmsford is a good example. The Conservatives have been in control in Basildon long enough to have introduced an S106 policy and by not having one are effectively allowing developers to deprive the residents (existing and future) of basic needs, which will ultimately cost council tax payers more when they have to provide additional infrastructure, which will invariably have to be done.

I won’t go over the other points, we can let the readers make their own judgement.

I see that the council have arranged a public meeting on 13 August for people to air their views on Barn Hall. This is certainly a step in the right direction, and I hope that you also consider the overall developments in Wickford to be a suitable topic for a meeting, as you indicated at the end of your last note.

I just have to end by repeating that the Wickford Action Group are NOT opposed to a master plan, it is a sensible way forward, but we are opposed to YOUR master plan, for the reasons stated in my last note.