The report on pages 13 – 96 of the Agenda was presented by Matthew Gallagher. Since the publication of the Agenda, there had been two updates, the first was that the Applicant’s representative had sent legal advice from a QC which Members had also received. The second was a letter of objection from a resident highlighting the flood risk; highway safety particularly at the junction between Churchhill Road and Dock Road; and did not feel that the reasons for approval put forward by Members were enough to outweigh the harm to the Green Belt.
Matthew Gallagher went through the application proposals and highlighted that the reasons that Members had provided for wanting to approve the report were assessed on pages 27 – 31 of the report. The benefits of the scheme and the Members reasons for wanting to depart from the Officer’s recommendation in March was not considered to clearly outweigh the harm to the Green Belt, therefore a case of Very Special Circumstances (VSC) did not exist and the Officer’s recommendation to refuse planning permission remained.
Referring to the trees on the site and the Ecology Adviser’s notes within the report, Councillor Byrne questioned whether the shade of the trees, if left to grow, would affect the invertebrate interests on the site. Matthew Gallagher explained that the existing habitats on the site were important to invertebrates and that the current site consisted of a mix of vegetation alongside bare grounds. If the vegetation was left to overgrow, there would be increased shading and the interest to invertebrates would diminish. He referred to page 17 of the Agenda and highlighted that the site had been identified as a potential non-statutory Local Wildlife Site (LoWS) which was a material consideration as legislation required the Local Planning Authority (LPA) to take into the interests of biodiversity and wildlife conservation. If the scheme was to be approved, ecological mitigation and compensation would be required.
Councillor Lawrence commented that there had been horses on the site during the site visit and questioned whether the site had been maintained by the land owners or by volunteers. Matthew Gallagher answered that to his knowledge, the site had not been maintained and that the horses were potentially preventing an overgrowth of vegetation which, as an indirect result, was helping to keep the diversity of the habitat. Without the horses, the vegetation would overgrow and would then become an interest to other biodiversity interests. Although the site was not yet a non-statutory designated LoWS, biodiversity habitats and protected species were material planning considerations which Members needed to consider.
The Chair noted the site was next to Asda and queried, if the application was approved, whether a safe footpath could be provided for pedestrians to walk through the site to access Asda instead of walking along the industrial estate path. It would also be in the interests of potential residents on the proposed development to have a safer footpath. Matthew Gallagher explained that the site did not connect to Asda and the access would be through the pedestrian and cycle links. There was no potential for a footpath to Asda as it involved other private land and it was not within the gift of the Applicant to access that land directly which was fenced off and that the plan was indicative only. He said that the industrial estate footpath followed along the public highway but stopped and to the right was an area with commercial vehicles, in which the Applicant had rights of access for commercial access or potentially footfall. He went on to say that the application was for outline planning permission and that the layout was for reserved matters and that the Applicant was not considering a footpath so was not up for consideration on the application. The suggested footpath as put forward by the Chair was through a strip of land that the Applicant had no control over.
Julian Howes added that pedestrian access was across the north-west of Manor Road and linked to the new cycle and footpath along Thurrock Parkway down to the south-west. The Highways Team had advised the Applicant that a solution would be needed regarding emergency access if the proposed pedestrian and cycle access was to be the main access from the site. Highways were looking to use a bridge to link in the north-west of the site and also a bridge further down where Thurrock Parkway was to form part of the pedestrian and cycle access that linked directly into Tilbury that headed underneath the A1089 bridge.
The Chair summed up the points debated so far and felt that an approval of the application was risky and that the QC’s opinion was biased towards their client. He felt the scheme was a big mistake. The Vice-Chair commented that he had voted to approve the scheme initially but given the extra information on ecological impact in the Officer’s report and the amount of local objections to the scheme, he was more inclined to vote to refuse planning permission.
Councillor Rice stated that he was still minded to approve the application and raised the following points:
Councillor Byrne sought clarification on the number of job opportunities as he had heard figures of 4,000 and 285 jobs that would be available. Matthew Gallagher said that according to the Port of Tilbury’s business case accompanying their application for a DCO, there would be 500 jobs available when Tilbury2 was fully operational which it was not yet. He went on to say that when the Port of Tilbury expansion was considered in 2018, the LPA had secured a Skills and Employment Strategy via a s106 agreement to ensure more of those jobs would be accessible for Thurrock’s residents and Tilbury residents in particular. The Port of Tilbury’s employment census showed that 57% of its existing employees were Thurrock residents. Applying the 57% to the 500 available jobs would give a figure of 285.
Steve Taylor commented that the promoted affordable housing element did not state who would be eligible to purchase these and did not necessarily mean that residents would be taken off the housing waiting list. He referred to the legal implications highlighted within the report and pointed out that the real issue was the Green Belt and this particular strip of land was the last that separated Little Thurrock and Tilbury.
The Chair proposed the Officer’s recommendation to refuse planning permission which was seconded by Councillor Byrne.
FOR: (3) Councillors Gary Byrne, Mike Fletcher and Tom Kelly.
AGAINST: (4) Councillors Angela Lawrence, Dave Potter, Gerard Rice and Sue Sammons.
ABSTAINED: (1) Councillor Sue Shinnick.
The Officer’s recommendation was rejected.
Councillor Rice proposed an alternative motion and the reasons were summed up as follows:
Jonathan Keen pointed out that five of the reasons given had been significantly covered within the Officer’s report and were considered not enough to approve the application. Caroline Robins said that each of the given reasons had to be supported with evidence and individually weighed against the harm to the Green Belt. Members had to ensure that the benefits clearly outweighed the harm to the Green Belt.
The Committee sought clarification on weighing the benefits against the harm to the Green Belt. Officers explained that substantive evidence was needed to support the reasons that Members had given to approve the application. The previous five reasons given at the first hearing of the application on 19 March 2020 had been assessed in the Officer’s report and it had been shown that these did not clearly outweigh the harm. In addition to those five reasons, Members had given three new reasons which they now had to assess and show that these clearly outweighed the harm to the Green Belt to show VSC. Members were reminded of the procedures outlined in the Constitution, Chapter 5, part 3C, 7.5.
Councillor Rice referred to the table on page 88 and felt that the weight attributed to inappropriate development and reduction in the openness of the Green Belt carried no weight and disagreed with the weight attributed by Officers. He pointed out that the site was currently inaccessible and the development would make this accessible to people and improve connectivity so the weight to provision of new public open space should be very significant. The provision of the new employment units should have significant weight for the employment reasons already mentioned. He went on to say that Thurrock had a Core Strategy with a suite of policies but there was no Local Plan or call for sites and that the Committee’s decision of approval would be for the Secretary of State to judge whether the decision should be called-in. He felt the reasons given were significant enough for the Committee to approve the application. Referring to the weighting given on the table on page 88, Matthew Gallagher explained that the NPPF (para. 144) stated that ‘substantial weight’ had to be given to any harm to the Green Belt and that Members had no latitude to ascribe a lesser weight to the harm. However, he said that it was for Members to look at the scheme’s benefits and weigh them against the harm to the Green Belt and give substantiated evidence to show the benefits would clearly outweigh the harm to the Green Belt. He also reminded Members that the Secretary of State could not be used as a safety net for making decisions on the Green Belt contrary to an Officer’s decision.
Councillor Lawrence pointed out that the cycle links proposed within the application would add significant benefits as it would improve health and wellbeing for people. It gave people the opportunity to walk or cycle to work instead.
Jonathan Keen noted the eight reasons given by Members to approve the application and also the comments from Councillor Rice on open space and unemployment issues. Regarding the Core Strategy, he pointed out that the Council had a Development Plan which was the adopted Core Strategy which included policies for the Green Belt. However, putting all these together, it was not enough for the application to be approved and the decision, if Members were still minded to approve, would be referred to the Monitoring Officer to review whether the decision was lawful. If the decision was lawful, the next step would be for the Chair and the Assistant Director to agree the content of the legal agreement and any conditions which would then be referred to the Secretary of State.
With Councillor Rice putting forward the alternative motion as the proposer, Councillor Lawrence seconded this.
FOR: (4) Councillors Angela Lawrence, Dave Potter, Gerard Rice and Sue Sammons.
AGAINST: (3) Councillors Gary Byrne, Mike Fletcher and Tom Kelly.
ABSTAINED: (1) Councillor Sue Shinnick.
The application was approved subject to referral to the Monitoring Officer.