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Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 26 – Kirkby Damaging to Sefton, Skelmersdale and St Helen

The next witness for the combined authority objectors was the extremely competent Mr Gill, a town planner. Mr Gill explained the similarities and differences between Skelmersdale and Kirkby. Mr. Gill stated that he thought there were more vacant properties in Skelmersdale town centre than in Kirkby. It was alleged that Skelmersdale had the highest level of shop vacancies in the North West. He was “greatly concerned” about the scale of Destination Kirkby and what this could do to the plans for Skelmersdale town centre. He explained that Skelmersdale had fallen 60 places in the national retail rankings between 2004 and 2008 and that rents and yields had remained static. He said the only interest appeared to be from the discount sector.

Mr Gill explained that the Concourse Shopping Centre, opened in 1973 and extended in the 1990s, closed at 17.30, with only a few pubs and shops operating after that time.

Quoting the “Your Kirkby Your Future” Mr Gill described the progress that had been made in Kirkby. A new leisure centre, new housing in Tower Hill, a new health centre and £33million provided to create more jobs in Northwood. He said there had also been £28 million of European money to improve roads and transport to encourage more jobs. He went on to say there would be two new learning centres, a new primary care trust health centre for and a possible new train station at Headbolt Lane to service the area east of the town. Overall he stated, “Kirkby's population and employment rates had increased. Knowsley Council's fresh start initiative had created seventy-one new businesses and many companies had relocated to the area.

Mr Gill explained that Skelmersdale was at the heart of the Supplementary Planning Document designed to redevelopment those areas that were in decline.

Identifying that Skelmersdale was at the top of the retail hierarchy in its area Mr Gill confirmed that the development of Skelmersdale town centre was a priority in the council's corporate plan.

Mr Gill stated that achieving a deliverable master plan was essential. He explained it was very easy to draw up master plans but getting them implemented was another matter “this was why it was so important to get St Modwen involved”. He said the area's MP, Rosie Cooper, was a key driver in their proposal; she had described Skelmersdale as having “more visions than St Bernadette” having many policies that had not been delivered but that we thought we were now at the delivery stage. There would be a pedestrian friendly High Street linking the town to the Asda supermarket. The redevelopment of Skelmersdale would not undermine the vitality and viability of other centers, it went down the plan led route and the scheme had an approval from 93% from those who took part in the council's consultation process. He said Knowsley Council were advised of the consultation in the spring of 2008 when they were promoting the Kirkby proposals but no comment was made and that the Government Office North West were happy with the way West Lancs Council were taking this forward. He said English Partnerships were aware of the high levels of deprivation in the town. He said they were supportive of the development at Skelmersdale.

He said English Partnerships were also involved with KMBC on regenerating deprived areas and had expressed concern about the scale of the Kirkby proposals and the effect it might have on other areas.

Mr Gill explained that they wanted to maximise the space available within the retail sector of the town, pointing out that (in line with planning conditions) there was no intention for this development to have any impact on other towns in the area. He asked for full recognition of what won't happen in Skelmersdale if Destination Kirkby happens. Conversely, it would be a win-win situation if both schemes were the same size as Skelmersdale, especially for jobs and regeneration. He suggested Knowsley Council should have considered a proper town centre scheme rather than a scheme set to draw from such a large area; it was this area that was likely to cause problems further afield. He described Skelmersdale town centre as “a very sad centre in many ways” and the current plan was important for Skelmersdale”. Mr. Gill finished off his presentation of evidence by stating “we are a small authority and have put a lot of effort in to get this right.”

Mr. Barrett, counsel for Knowsley Council, began his cross-examination by asking if English Partnerships, while reflecting your concerns, did it adopt them? It was suggested that English Partnerships were neutral or Skelmersdale and Kirkby.

Mr. Gill denied that they were neutral, he explained the dilemma English Partnerships found itself in, “they wanted to support regeneration schemes but did not feel any scheme should have priority over another; if a view was taken that there would be an impact, they would have concerns.”

Mr Barrett asked, “What is your view of the replacement local plan?”

Mr Gill explained the local plan was relevant, he pointed out that Skelmersdale was the prime retail centre in West Lancashire. He said Skelmersdale was under performing in its function and the plan addressed what its appropriate function should be within the retail hierarchy. He said Kirkby was not the main centre in its area – there were three centres within a similar function within Knowsley.

Mr Barrett then asked, “Did the Skelmersdale plan comply with the Regional Spatial Strategy?”

Mr Gill replied that it did comply and the change in the retail hierarchy would be acceptable because of Skelmersdale's position within the Regional Spatial Strategy.

Mr Barrett finally asked Mr Gill if he agreed with the regeneration impact of the Kirkby proposals.

Mr Gill agreed that using English Partnerships methodology Destination Kirkby would create between 1200 and 1600 extra jobs for Kirkby and Knowsley as a whole, but he was concerned that the wider impact of this development had not been taken into account. Skelmersdale is not looking to draw from a wide catchment, primarily West Lancs, English Partnerships guidance is clear; Jobs won't be created in Skelmersdale if Destination Kirkby happens.

Mrs. Wendy Burden interjected and asked for lawyers to provide evidence on how enforceable the Section 106 agreements are.

Mr. Clarkson then began his cross-examination with a clumsy attempt at misinformation, “Knowsley is the 8th most deprived borough in the country, and West Lancashire isn't, is it?”

An able Mr. Gill responded, “Deprivation in West Lancashire is centred in Skelmersdale. Whilst jobs created by Destination Kirby would be significant, West Lancs Council thought a more acceptable scheme could still create the same number of jobs.

Mr. Clarkson asked if there wasn't the option for people in Skelmersdale to work in Kirkby?”

Mr. Gill replied “The people of Kirkby would be not be able to access jobs that followed the development in Skelmersdale or vice versa because public transport links are extremely poor. We are not saying there should be job losses in Kirkby, we are saying there should be jobs in both areas, and the council, (West Lancs) did not think town centre regeneration was the “be all and end all” of tackling the indices of deprivation.”

Mr. Clarkson had no further questions.

Mrs Burden then asked Mr Gill a number of questions. “What are the Public transport links like between Kirkby and Skelmersdale?” Mr Gill replied that they were bloody awful; “ the main bus links tended to go to Wigan or Liverpool, but took some time.” He explained, “Most people travelling to Liverpool, would probably change at Ormskirk and get the train. He said there were express bus services into Liverpool but these weren't frequent. Skelmersdale did not have a rail station but the transport authorities have accepted the desire for this. He thought Wigan was the major shopping centre that most people in Skelmersdale would use for a greater choice. He said there were no real public transport links between Kirkby and Skelmersdale but road links were good. He did accept that poor public transport meant people would have to use their car to shop and this was why it was important for Skelmersdale to improve the retail offer for local people. He said most people seemed to prefer to shop locally where they could.

Mrs. Burden next asked what would you do if a town has bad transport links?

Mr. Gill replied that, in that case, it was important to build locally, allow the town to cater for itself. Skelmersdale should fulfill its role as defined by the RSS. There are good transport links with the catchment area.

Mrs. Burden next wanted to know what he thought the differences were between Skelmersdale and Kirkby?

Mr. Gill replied that Skelmersdale is more isolated, a stand-alone town. Kirkby is more integrated with the Liverpool conurbation. Kirkby town center feels more like one than Skelmersdale's enclosed shopping centre. He also explained that Skelmersdale had some very poor housing and that the standard of housing In Kirkby was better. He thought this might be a result of the investment that had already been attracted to the town.

Mrs. Burden thanked Mr. Gill for his assistance.

Mr. Roger Lancaster introduced the next witness for the Combined Authority Objectors, Mr Tom Ferguson; the development plans manager for St Helens Council.

Mr Ferguson described how St Helens had undergone a massive change in recent years with the decline of their traditional glass making and coal mining industries although he acknowledged that Kirkby was more deprived than St Helens.

Mr. Ferguson explained that St. Helens needed to be more dynamic and vibrant. Liverpool One is drawing trade but is allowed to do so given its position in the Regional Spatial Strategy. Wigan and Warrington are their major competitors but that once again regeneration in those towns was consistent with the Regional Spatial Strategy, within the retail hierarchy and regional strategy and as such did not pose a threat to St Helens.

He explained that there was considerable support for the Chalon Way development in St Helens as the town had been losing market share in the non-food retail sector and would lose out in years to come if nothing was done.

He was concerned that this creation of a sub regional centre so near to St Helens was likely to cause problems with potential investors in St Helens. The primary concern was that the Kirkby development was being presented, once again, as a retailers dream; large and surrounded by car parking, something that St. Helens can't provide. The design for Destination Kirkby had not met CABE's requirements; the applicants had opted for retail advantage. He said the Government Office and the Planning Inspectorate advice about the new spatial system looked at regeneration but also the need to develop “a sense of place”. He said the Kirkby scheme would function as an out of centre retail development and as such would attract the shoppers they would be hoping to attract to St Helens; over 50% currently travel by bus to St Helens, Roger Tym, (consultants for KMBC), accepted there will be an adverse effect on St. Helens.

In a quite devastating assessment of Destination Kirkby Mr Ferguson explained that the Regional Spatial Strategy was “giving a very clear steer about spatial development and how to deal with the hierarchy and investment opportunities across the region. Councils would not be able to object to redevelopment plans in neighbouring authorities as long as they were proportionate. The policy provided a sense of balance. What was disturbing about the Kirkby proposals was that they would bring about a massive injection of floor space that would change the retail hierarchy and that the scale of this development should be tested through the planning system.”

Mr. Ferguson explained that the Kirkby plan was a very significant departure from the regional substructure as set out in the Regional Spatial Strategy.”

Mr Patrick Clarkson began his cross-examination by asking, “Why did your council object to ING's objection to Chalon Way?

He agreed that ING objected to the Chalon Way scheme because they did not think there was not enough expenditure around to make it viable. But St Helens Council did not think this reason was enough to refuse the scheme. Mr. Ferguson continued to explain that the Chalon Way scheme had gone through the development led process but there was urgency on the St Helen's Rugby Club as they were subject to Super league conditions. ING objected as they thought there would be less expenditure available for their own aspirations. He added that ING had put in a written submission expressing concerns about Kirkby.

Mr Clarkson then asked, “Ravenhead Retail Park is out of centre and being extended with permission from your council; your council is allowing competition with its own Town center is it not?”

Mr. Ferguson explained, “There are conditions as to what can be sold on the retail park. A loophole was found in the S106 agreement to extend it by 1,000sq m.

Mr Clarkson pointed out “Tesco are investing in Chalon Way. They are keen to get on with it.”

Mr. Ferguson explained that they will still have to attract investment, retailers that might prefer Kirkby.

Mr. Barrett for KMBC began his cross-examination by asking “St. Helen's Club couldn't move because it was a source of civic pride and too important to the town. Yet the stadium was inadequate and threatening their league status. These are material considerations, similar to EFC?”

Mr. Ferguson, a development plans manager for St. Helens, answered “Similar yes, they conflict with residential areas.”

Mr. Barrett, “So it's not challenged that Everton are in an inadequate stadium which is assisting in the decline of the club?

Once again, Mr. Ferguson, a development plans manager for St Helens, explained “The issue isn't with the stadium, it's the method of securing it, namely cross funding of an appropriate scale.”

Mr. Lancaster in closing pointed out that the rugby stadium at St Helens cost £22m, with a cross subsidy of £8m and also established that it was being built on a brownfield site, as is Chalon Way.

Mrs Burden asked Mr. Ferguson if it was just the food sector of the Chalon Way development that would be cross subsidising the RL stadium? Mr Ferguson informed her that this was the case and that there were no firm plans for the old Tesco site. Mrs. Burden then asked how do people from St Helens travel to the Trafford Centre? Mr Ferguson explained that this journey was made primarily by car.

Mr Lancaster introduced his next witness, Mr. Andrew Wallis, the planning and economic director of Sefton Council.

Mr Wallis explained that Sefton Council had been consulted on the Kirkby Interim Planning Statement and had offered comments and suggestions, although the majority were objections the Government Office North West suggested that even if the IPS were adopted it would carry only limited weight.

Mr. Wallis explained that Sefton had “urged” Knowsley Council to seek further reductions in the non- food floor space in relation to the retail hierarchy that would have a less damaging impact on neighbouring centres. He explained that Bootle was one of two town centres in Sefton; the other was Southport, which had been identified as the large retail, leisure and cultural centres of the borough. They were both well connected by road and rail. He said Bootle was the main food and non-food shopping centre for south Sefton and provided jobs for 5,000 people. The vast majority of the floor space was within the Strand shopping centre, this has a vacancy rate of around 13%. Deprivation and low quality housing were evident in South Sefton and the area had suffered through the decline of the traditional economic base in the area. Part of the HMRI a regenerated town centre could bring people back. Bootle is classified as 2nd priority. A heath check, carried out on Bootle town centre, found there were good and healthy aspects but it was in a vulnerable position and likely to get worse because of other developments, particularly with Liverpool One. The recent opening of an Asda store had not changed this situation. It was not disputed that while Kirkby has deprivation, it is on the decline while Liverpool, Bootle and St. Helens are deteriorating and it was established that Bootle has a higher crime rate.

Mrs. Burden closed the inquiry for the day.

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