Back in subtext 179, on 7 June 2018, in an article introducing the then-new idea of a Bailrigg Garden Village on land between Galgate and Scotforth, your correspondents speculated on how many dwellings, exactly, we would be talking about here. We reported that, ‘according to a table on housing supply shown to subtext, the planners currently forecast Garden Village construction to start in 2021/22, with 205 houses built between then and 2023/24, a further 700 built between 2024/25 and 2028/29, and a further 750 built between 2029/30 and 2033/34.’ That’ll be 1,655 dwellings in total then. Cut to 25 June 2021 and…
‘Lancaster councillors are to discuss plans for a major £260m transformation to south Lancaster which is set to see more than 9,000 new homes built.’
Hang on, what?
Where did this figure – actually 9,185 dwellings – come from? Are these houses really likely to be built? Cut to an extraordinary meeting of Lancaster City Council in Morecambe Town Hall on Wednesday 25 August 2021, where councillors formally agreed ‘that Lancaster City Council enters into a legally binding Collaboration Agreement with Lancashire County Council, for the purposes of recovering funds through the use of planning powers’ in order to ‘repay Lancashire County Council for the forward provision of infrastructure related items pursuant to the delivery of the South Lancaster Growth Catalyst’. The publicly available council documents for that meeting are at:
The council meeting began with seven addresses by members of the public in opposition to the plans – meanwhile, a demonstration took place outside.
Subsequently, it turned out that the announcement of 9,185 houses should have come as no surprise to anyone, because the figure had been announced in the 11 March 2020 budget by Rishi Sunak MP! Campaigners at Dynamo, the Lancaster cycle campaign, spotted this on 2 April 2020, noting that HM Treasury had explicitly announced that £140m from the Housing Infrastructure Fund would ‘unlock up to 9,185 homes’ in South Lancaster:
Between then and June 2021, this figure went largely unmentioned. With hindsight, it’s difficult to work out why – were we all distracted by something?
subtext attended several of this summer’s public meetings in an attempt to work out what we are, and are not, likely to be seeing over the next 20 years.
ROUND ONE – ‘SIX TIMES THE SIZE OF CARNFORTH’
First up was the North Lancashire Green Party’s online public meeting on Wednesday 14 July, ably chaired by Dr Emily Heath. Billed as a discussion, in reality this was a chance to hear from several of the scheme’s most prominent critics, including Cllr Caroline Jackson, Cllr Tim Hamilton-Cox, Cllr Gina Dowding and, from the garden village-sceptic group CLOUD, Mary Breakell and Tony Breakell.
‘It’s big!’, stated Cllr Jackson, meaning both a big issue and big in terms of land area, with (we were told) plans to build on over 1,000 acres of current farmland, stretching from just west of Lancaster University almost to Glasson Dock, and likely to be agreed by the city council as a condition of accepting £140m of Housing Infrastructure Funding (HIF) from the government. It would be ’15 times the size of Halton’, ‘6 times the size of Carnforth’ or ‘the size of Nelson or Darwen’.
Besides government funds, the only significant money coming in for this would be £98m of ‘Section 106 money’, i.e. money obtained from the developers, and Cllr Jackson did not see how this could fund the local amenities needed by such a major new town, since we ‘can’t expect people to walk or cycle from as far as Glasson Dock’ to visit facilities in Lancaster.
Cllr Hamilton-Cox had slides, figures and pictures – most of these came directly from the ‘final draft masterplan’ for the Bailrigg Garden Village project, published in March 2021 by ‘JTP on behalf of Lancaster City Council’ (JTP is a firm of architects) and available at:
Officially these are just ideas, but certainly, the vision for a (rather attractive looking) new town is there: the first phase, to be implemented between now and 2031, would focus on Burrow Heights, while the second phase, starting after 2031, would develop land west of the canal and north of Conder Green Road (the road from Conder Green to Galgate). The JTP masterplan includes a map, shown by Cllr Hamilton-Cox, indicating on a satellite image the possible locations that could be used – it did make the place look a bit like a new golf course, but the details were clear. There’s even a little heart emoji on Tarnwater Lane, because that’ll be the ‘heart’ of the new community. Aah.
One thing that was lacking in the JTP masterplan was any estimate on the numbers of dwellings, but this is where Cllr Hamilton-Cox could help. We now knew the number of homes forecast as part of the South Lancaster Growth Catalyst (Bailrigg Garden Village’s official name) bid, and it did indeed come to 9,185 in total:
– 8,085 in the garden village or ‘new town’, made up of 4,585 in phase 1 and 3,500 in phase 2;
– 600 elsewhere in South Lancaster; and
– 2,000 new student rooms on campus, which apparently was only equivalent to 500 homes for the purposes of counting homes, for some reason.
These figures were later confirmed as appearing in the City Council papers for Wednesday 25 August’s meeting in a Facebook post by Cllr Alistair Sinclair. Cllr Hamilton-Cox claimed that plans to use land east of the M6 (a significant portion of this is now owned by Lancaster University) had ‘dropped off the radar’ and could be disregarded. However, the ‘Bailrigg Spine Road’ running west from Hazelrigg Lane under the railway line (see subtext 195) would be ready for September 2025, with the remodelled Junction 33 of the M6 complete by July 2027.
Did Lancaster have to do this, though, especially after 2031 when the current local plan expires? According to Cllr Hamilton-Cox, the ‘quid pro quo’ of accepting the HIF money was a commitment to deliver that many houses. It was ‘in the small print’, although the meeting wasn’t shown any of this small print.
This issue – does signing the deal commit the council to deliver that many homes? – remains the biggest point of disagreement between the two sides. On the ‘No’ side, the report by the Director for Economic Growth & Regeneration to the emergency council meeting, released to the public on Monday 23 August, sought to reassure councillors that the housing numbers of 9,185 ‘are not Planning figures, but assumptions based on the potential capacity of sites across the broad area for growth within the Local Plan. They provide a projection of what can be delivered to fund road and other infrastructure, but they are not absolutes. These numbers also may or may not be delivered within the HIF timeframe.’ On the ‘Oh yes it does!’ side, the Lancaster Civic Society stated on Monday 6 September that they ‘understand that by entering into this agreement the City Council is now faced with the dilemma of enabling the provision of over 9000 new homes in South Lancaster or accepting the financial consequences of failing to do so’:
What about the council’s requirement that all developments should contain 30% affordable housing? Cllr Hamilton-Cox believed that this could be waived if the developer could demonstrate that this requirement would make the scheme unviable. If the council didn’t approve the HIF bid, could the site be developed anyway? Cllr Hamilton-Cox noted that the local plan forecasts 1,300 new homes by 2031, and current housing plans, not including the garden village, would deliver these anyway. Developers would need good road access from the M6, such as would be provided by a remodelled Junction 33, to build on such a scale.
Jill Bargh, whose family sold some land east of the M6 near Hazelrigg Lane to Lancaster University, and which still owns land west of the Lancaster Canal, told the meeting that most farmers with land west of the canal weren’t planning to sell. It’s very good quality land which is much valued by farmers. Cllr Hamilton-Cox countered that ‘some farmers are very willing to sell their land for development’, but Mrs Bargh’s contribution raised an important point: you can only develop a piece of land if the owners of that land are willing to sell it to developers, and if not enough of them are willing, then the development is unlikely to happen.
ROUND TWO – A CHARM OFFENSIVE
On to an online briefing by Lancaster City Council on Wednesday 11 August, where the first speaker, Cllr Caroline Jackson, was trying to sell an arrangement which, your correspondent suspected, she was not entirely supportive of. This would be a legally binding collaboration with Lancashire County Council and Homes England: we would accept £140m from Homes England as part-payment for road and other improvements that will cost £241m; and the bulk of the remaining funds would be borrowed by the County Council and be recovered over time by the City Council by means of a ‘roof tax’ on developers. To cover the cost, developers would need to build 9,185 houses. Lancaster had a number of highway problems and the new road would help with most of these. We don’t have a viability study and, for that reason, we don’t know whether we will get any affordable housing in the development, because the developers may decide that this is not viable.
Following this less-than-ringing endorsement, over to council planning officer Jason Syers, who gave an upbeat outline of why the scheme should be supported. It might look like a ‘great big slug’ of a development, but this was how to plan development in a sustainable way, to create truly walkable neighbourhoods. The figure of 9,185 homes came from a ‘desktop exercise’ and didn’t form part of any planning case. Local people will have the opportunity to contribute as part of discussions on the eventual Area Action Plan.
When would the viability study be available and would it be published? Mr Syers described the study (which, possibly contradicting Cllr Jackson’s earlier point, does seem to exist) as being ‘a bit like a graphic equaliser’, containing a sensitivity analysis of the range and breadth of risks. The viability study would not be a public document due to ‘commercial sensitivities’.
What was to stop the council setting up its own development vehicle, providing council housing to Passivhaus standards? Mr Syers thought that the authority could look at being the provider of some housing provision, but not all, due to cost constraints. Affordable housing was not the only solution anyway; we wanted mixed use neighbourhoods. Kieran Keane, City Council Chief Executive, noted that there were several things local authorities would love to do, including the use of development vehicles, but they still need to borrow the funds.
Why did this decision need to happen so soon, on 25 August? ‘This has been going on for some years,’ assured Mr Syers, sounding at times like the commander of a Vogon Constructor Fleet: while he didn’t actually say that ‘you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaints, and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now’, your correspondent detected similar levels of frustration in his voice.
ROUND THREE – YOUNG AT HEART FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
The last big event prior to the Council meeting was the online Lancaster Youth for the Environment (LYFE) public meeting on Thursday 19 August, with former Labour MP Alan Simpson (appearing via a recorded interview), Jenny Bates from Friends of the Earth and Cllr Kevin Frea, City Council Cabinet member with responsibility for the climate emergency. In the chair, Millie Prosser from LYFE claimed that the plans made ‘a mockery of the climate emergency declaration’.
Alan Simpson felt that we have to engage in transformative thinking and we ‘cannot go on with our current notions of growth and recovery’. Cars had been barred from large parts of Copenhagen. The South Lancaster plans had ‘rang all sorts of alarm bells’ with him. Banks were withdrawing from projects that weren’t ‘climate compatible’.
Jenny Bates focused, like the majority at this meeting, on the proposed Galgate by-pass. Not even electric cars were clean and we needed to cut car miles. Copenhagen was encouraging longer cycling trips. Building a large road would just feed more traffic.
Cllr Frea claimed that the council had a carbon budget of just 4.8 million tonnes between now and 2100, and just building the road would use up 2.8% of this.
Cllr Hamilton-Cox believed that the development would not enable the City Council to meet its 5-year housing supply target – between now and 2034, the garden village would account for less than 2 years’ supply. Cllr Gina Dowding claimed that council officers had told her in writing that the development wouldn’t meet our 5-year housing supply. Cllr Faye Penny suggested we should instead use the Canal Quarter in Lancaster or the Frontierland site in Morecambe for housing.
Cllr Anne Whitehead was one of only two voices to cautiously speak in favour of the HIF funding, asking people present to consider the alternative: a ‘free-for-all’ where developers would be likely to win planning objections on appeal. This yielded a comment that ‘as if 9,000 houses in South Lancaster isn’t the embodiment of a developer’s dream’.
Further comments were made on flood risk – including the point that the proposed road under the West Coast Main Line will be 2.4m below the level of the adjacent Ou Beck, so how would this be kept clear of water? Towards the end, Cllr Sinclair seemed to sum up the mood of the meeting: ’59 councillors are not the receptacle of all the wisdom in the district.’
AND SO TO THE FINAL
Onward, then, to Morecambe Town Hall on 25 August and the full council meeting, where subtext won’t offer a very long report, because thanks to the wonders of modern technology it’s possible for you to watch the proceedings yourself, as a Teams recording, at:
The best speech in opposition to the plans was probably that of Cllr Richard Austen-Baker (starting 1 hr 31 mins into the recording), who focused entirely on the possible risks to the council: ‘I don’t know, from reading through this contract, what the potential risks are, over such a long period of time’. If we didn’t recover sufficient funds from developers through the roof tax, would the county council address this by deciding not to provide some of the promised infrastructure?
The best speech in favour of the plans was, according to some of those who heard it, that of Cllr Anne Whitehead, but this was given during the ‘exempt’ part of the meeting when the cameras were off and visitors were excluded, so we’ll never be able to hear it.
A proposal to say ‘no’ was lost by 30 votes to 19; following some votes on amendments, the final proposal to say ‘yes’ was carried by 31 votes to 16, with 2 abstentions. The agreement with Homes England was signed the following week.