‘Disappointing’. This is the word used three times by Rother District Council’s planning committee in 2019, in rejecting SeaChange’s application to build the ‘Bexhill Innovation Park North’. As we await the outcome of SeaChange’s appeal against the decision, we look at why the committee was so disappointed with the proposal put in front of it.
In September 2017, SeaChange put in a planning application for Bexhill Enterprise Park North – a business park of ‘up to 38,000sqm’ to the north of Bexhill, with access via the North Bexhill Access Road (now renamed Haven Brook Avenue).
In May 2018, Rother District Council (RDC) granted outline planning permission after reducing the proposed floorspace to 33,500sqm because of concerns that the planned development was ‘extremely cramped’ and did not leave enough space for landscaping.
£1.94m, 493 jobs
A year later, in June 2019, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) agreed to grant SeaChange £1.94m (p8) from the Local Growth Fund towards the plans. The £1.94m from SELEP was supplemented by a further £7m from Westcott Leach Ltd, the developers chosen by SeaChange to actually build the business park. In the business case for the funding, SeaChange claimed (p20) that the project had the ‘potential’ to create 493 jobs and to generate a cumulative £341m GVA by 2028. GVA – gross value added – is the measure of the value of goods and services produced by a particular area, industry or sector.
Everything looked to be going well: SeaChange had the outline planning permission, and the funding. What could possibly go wrong?
In October 2019, Rother District Council’s planning committee considered SeaChange’s application for ‘reserved matters’. This is the next stage after outline planning permission is granted, and requires the applicant to submit details of issues which may include landscaping, design, access, layout and scale of the proposed project.
This is where things started to look a bit sticky for SeaChange. The council refused the application.
‘Poorly laid out’
RDC’s 2009 masterplan for the development of the area north of Bexhill envisages (p16) 26,000m2 of business development on what is known as the ‘BX3’ site.
In its planning application, SeaChange applied to build up to 33,500m2 of units. The outline application committee report stated (p108) that, ‘Any increase [in floorspace] will be acceptable only if the siting, scale, appearance and landscape details, which will be submitted as reserved matters applications, are appropriate and follow the landscape strategy required to mitigate for the visual and landscape impacts of the development on the urban edge.’
But in the document refusing planning permission, RDC states (p3) that:
‘The committee report also advised that the indicative master-plan submitted at that stage deviated significantly and unacceptably from the SPD’s clear, strong design and landscape principles and over-arching vision for the development of this site resulting in a very poorly laid out illustrative master-plan, and as such, the master-plan was specifically not approved by the outline planning permission’ [emphasis added].
‘Unacceptably poor approach’
The document is pretty damning of SeaChange’s vision for the new business park (p3):
The road layout and internal site circulation, proposed tree and hedgerow loss, insufficient new structural landscaping, both as buffer and as green space within the development, and cramped development dominated by hard landscaping, all combine to create an unacceptably poor approach to commercial site planning, as if it were in an anonymous urban fringe context rather than a place-specific, landscape-led, rural business park with a high quality design and place-making vision at its heart.
Frustration with SeaChange
Reading through the report, one can sense a growing sense of frustration with SeaChange’s willingness to engage with the council over the application:
‘In the interests of trying to secure the delivery of employment floorspace on this site, officers have attempted to work positively with the applicant and Sea Change Sussex to secure amendments to the scheme, but these have not been forthcoming in a meaningful and significant enough way.’ (p9)
Regrettably, despite officers’ attempts to secure amendments during the consideration of the application, the scheme as submitted provides an unsatisfactory response. (p13)
It has been particularly disappointing that despite officers’ repeated, detailed advice, the applicants have been unwilling to seriously address the underlying key issues with the layout and masterplanning approach. (p23)
‘Fields completely infilled’
The issues with the proposed plan go on and on:
– fields completely infilled with buildings and hardstanding car parking.
– identikit building footprints simply ‘stamped’ over the site with no response to context, topography, landscape, and wider place-making qualities or strategic design/character vision for the site.
– pedestrian and cycle linkways forced round the backs of commercial buildings or through car parks, or along the main access road, which does not make for attractive, desirable leisure routes and connectivity. (p13)
Objections from multiple sides
But it’s not just the look of the proposed buildings that’s an issue. Several consultees object to the plans on the grounds of biodiversity and environmental mitigation, drainage, and access.
The county ecologist objects (p10) because of loss of hedgerows and because the plan ‘does not address the wider issues of retaining/creating foraging and commuting habitat throughout the wider development’.
The Highway Authority objects (p6) because of the poor connections for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. The proposed cycle route through the site is described as ‘a circuitous route along the site access road’.
The county landscape architect objects (p9) for various reasons including unacceptable tree loss and because ‘[t]he proposal would not comply with National Planning Policy Framework policies for conserving and enhancing the natural environment’.
The local flood authority objects (p11) because of potential issues with runoff which have not been addressed.
What the council envisaged
Towards the end of the refusal document, RDC sets out what it actually envisaged for the site, as laid down in its masterplan for the area. It says (p22):
The opportunity exists here to create an exemplary innovative new type of ‘eco-business park’ with strong commercial branding based on sustainable design principles of:
•respecting and responding positively to existing landscape and wildlife features, habitats, and ecology systems.
•low-embodied energy content of building construction.
•low-emissions buildings in operating mode, incorporating energy-efficient technologies.
To achieve this level of environmentally responsible development, a high quality of architecture will be expected, exploiting latest eco-technologies in buildings, and contributing positively in its built form and design to the existing natural beauty of the area.
‘Concerns outweigh the economic benefits’
The report concludes by reiterating (p24) the council’s disappoinment with the proposed plan:
‘However, despite officers’ advice and a series of meetings to seek an amended approach, the issues and concerns discussed in Section 8.0 of this report remain; that is the lack of an appropriate response to context, topography and landscape character, through the strategic approach to place-making, the road layout and internal site circulation, tree and hedgerow loss, insufficient new structural landscaping and cramped development dominated by hard landscaping. On balance, these concerns outweigh the economic benefits of supporting this proposal. As such, it is recommended that reserved matters application be refused.’
SeaChange has appealed the decision to refuse planning permission. The appeal was heard in January 2021, with a decision expected in early March. You can read the developer’s legal summary here and RDC’s here.
Will Rother District Council achieve their vision of a ‘new type of eco-business park’? Or will SeaChange’s tree-felling, hedgerow-ripping-out, hard-landspacing prevail? We shall wait and see.