A major Leighton Buzzard employer claims it was “used” to secure planning permission for a controversial warehouse on green belt land.
Demolition work to clear the land at Deans Farm, near Stanbridge, is due to get underway, two years after the scheme was approved by Central Beds Council’s development management committee.
And on the eve of the work at the 1.79-hectare site off the A505, Miniclipper Logistics has been angered by a construction firm putting out a press release claiming the Billington Road company would be moving into the £3.6m building.
The press release has since been recalled after the LBO queried the claims within it, but Peter Masters, Miniclipper’s managing director has been left furious, with a CBC councillor admitting to being “uncomfortable” at the way planning permission was originally secured, and a CPRE (Campaign for the Protection of Rural England) spokesman also expressing his dismay.
The council approved the Deans Farm warehouse in February 2016 after David Lock Associates, acting as agent for applicant Mr P Dean and Brickhill Properties GP Ltd, warned of the consequences of turning down the scheme.
They said Miniclipper could be forced to move away from Central Bedfordshire, possibly to Milton Keynes, where sites for commercial development were available and wrote: “Of course, MK has already benefitted from Millennium Mats and Franklin Products relocation from Leighton Buzzard, due to their inability to find a suitable alternative locally. To lose Miniclipper to MK would I am sure you agree, be a massive blow to the local community, economy and image of the district as a place to live, work, develop, grow, invest and do business.”
The council was also told that 70 new jobs would be created by Miniclipper’s move to Dean’s Farm. Councillors accepted the warehouse would be a significant “blot” on the Green Belt, but voted to approve the 2,184sq metre/12 metre high warehouse, two covered canopy areas of 975 and 1,175sq metres, a 346sq metre ground floor office and a 314sq metre first floor office, plus parking for 50 cars and 40 HGVs.
Councillors and CBC officers agreed that although it would have seriously harm the Green Belt, that was outweighed by the “special circumstances” of supporting economic growth.
Both the prospect of the 70 new jobs, and the prospect of Miniclipper moving further afield were repeated in the withdrawn press release, with the construction firm saying it has been the result of a “misunderstanding” and that they had “nothing further to add” about the situation.
And reacting this week, Mr Masters confirmed that Miniclipper had no interest in moving to the site, although admitting his company had expressed an initial interest.
He said: “Back in 2016 we were asked by a developer if we would be interested in moving to the site.
“As we were (and still are) having capacity issues at Billington Road and as, location wise, the Deans Farm site would have suited us, I said we would be interested in looking at the possibility and as such supported the planning application.
“But, it was no way, our site, we had no plans to move there, we didn’t even talk commercials.
“You could say we were tactically ‘used’ to help get the planning permission which once achieved increased the value of the site.
“When we were offered the site at a much later stage, it was too expensive and not the right layout, so it was never a consideration.”
He said he assumed the construction firm’s press release had regurgitated the claims made at the planning meeting, reported on at the time by the LBO, adding: “It beggar’s belief they haven’t done any research as we are definitely NOT involved in this project and are NOT moving away from any of our four operating centres in Central Bedfordshire.”
A spokesman for David Lock Associates, agent for applicant Mr P Dean and Brickhill Properties GP Ltd, told the LBO said it was unfortunate that the press release from the construction firm had contained inaccurate information.
He said: “There is no commercial agreement in place with Miniclipper for the building under construction.
“The site, which was a former chicken farm and consisted of a number of large, dilapidated buildings, was initially granted planning for redevelopment in 2011.
A further outline application was approved in 2014 for ten B2/B8 use units totalling just over 37,000 sq ft.
“Following discussions with Miniclipper about their needs a further planning application was made in 2015 for a building designed specifically around their particular requirements.
“Whilst Miniclipper supported our application, and the site would have been a good location for them, no formal commercial agreement was ever in place between Miniclipper and the landowner.
“Both parties acted in good faith, but in the end changing commercial circumstances meant we could not agree a deal that would bring them to the site. The permission granted by the council was general and not specific to any occupier.
“Subsequently the scheme has been simplified and a more generic warehouse building is now being built out on a speculative basis to meet market requirements.
“It remains, however, an important commercial development that will deliver investment, jobs and numerous other benefits to the area, district and wider economy.”
Two year ago Councillor Tom Nicols spoke at the development management committee to support the warehouse scheme as it was “fundamental to the economy of the area”.
This week he said in hindsight more questions should have been asked about Miniclipper’s interest.
He said: “I am very uncomfortable about the way in which this application was bought forward and approved.
“I had some suspicion that the involvement of the Miniclipper organisation should have been questioned, the developer cited them as partners in this project yet they themselves had not publicly associated themselves with this development.
“I was also somewhat dubious about the claim that this would bring a further 70 jobs to the area.
“I do feel that the Development Management Committee may have been misled on this which will be unfortunate as this building when finished will indeed be a very visible structure in the open countryside, it was actually described as being a gateway development but in reality it’s some distance from the nearest settlement.
“Sadly planning is not an exact science and to no small extent we must depend on the veracity of statements made by the applicant.”
Thurstan Adburgham, of CPRE, also spoke at the meeting to say the warehouse would be a “classic blot on the landscape”.
He told councillors: “Special circumstances seems to rest entirely on Miniclipper claims that this site is the only one in the area which can meet their expansion needs in terms of timescale and affordability.
“Does the desire to expand amount to special circumstances as to justify a hugely prominent warehouse in a rural Green Belt location?”
Mr Adburgham said this week that he had suspected that Miniclipper’s initial interest in the location has been deliberately talked up.
He said: “What is even more reprehensible about the situation is that I contacted CBC’s Planning Department well ahead of the meeting to urge that a letter be obtained from Miniclipper to corroborate the applicants’ assertions that they had keen interest in the Deans Farm proposals, and that if it were to be consented, they would definitely be pursuing the matter with a view to taking up a tenancy.
“When I got to the meeting I found they hadn’t done so! Why not? It was simply common sense.”
Jason Longhurst, Central Bedfordshire Council director of regeneration, said: “The site had been granted planning permission for redevelopment for industrial and warehousing purposes in 2011 and 2013 and, at the time development management committee determined the application in 2016, we were very aware of Miniclipper’s position because we have a direct relationship with them as a good, local employer.
“This is why, despite the agent including information about Miniclipper as a prospective occupant to support the application, it was made clear to the committee that the applicant was not Miniclipper, that they may not occupy the site and, most particularly, there would not be a planning condition or agreement which guaranteed their occupation, not least because this could not have been justified in planning terms.”