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Alnwick planning inquiry, day 4: Trading estate would need £1.8m investment

The Willowburn Trading Estate
The Willowburn Trading Estate

Employment land and the viability of an Alnwick industrial estate were the focus on Friday (July 20) as an appeal hearing over a refused housing bid continued.

A public inquiry is currently taking place for a rejected outline application for around 125 homes on Willowburn Trading Estate.

The key issue is that the site is designated as employment land and not for residential development in the Alnwick and Denwick Neighbourhood Plan.

Trying to overturn the decision are the applicants – Northern Commercial Properties, whose majority shareholder is Lord James Percy, brother of the Duke of Northumberland, and the Harris & Sheldon Group, the landlord of Hardy and Greys owner Pure Fishing.

The refusal is being defended by Northumberland County Council, which was originally an applicant before withdrawing, and Alnwick Town Council, which was responsible for overseeing the development of the neighbourhood plan.

On day four, the inquiry heard from Martin Lytollis, from Newcastle-based commercial property consultants Lambert Smith Hampton, who provided evidence for the appellants.

Asked if the loss of the Willowburn Trading Estate would be detrimental to Alnwick, he said: “It wouldn’t cause any harm because of the more-than-ample number of employment sites to the east of the A1.”

Despite the county council saying that it has received an offer for its former depot after just three weeks of marketing, Mr Lytollis said he was ‘sceptical’, having not seen details of it.

“In my experience, far more offers hit the buffers than move to completion,” he continued. “It would represent the largest take-up in Alnwick in the past 18 years. Most of the take-up is for sites up to half-a-hectare.”

Furthermore, he said that the buildings owned by Northern Commercial Properties (NCP) required investment of £1.8million, while the Harris & Sheldon Group would likely demolish the buildings currently occupied by Pure Fishing if it did move to a new base at Cawledge, as announced last week.

“It would not be viable to redevelop the site with new employment buildings,” he added.

Mr Lytollis did not agree that the marketing of vacant NCP units by Bradley Hall – which didn’t result in much success – had been ‘vague’, as was claimed.

“There’s always scope for providing more detail but the particulars did what they are supposed to do,” he said. “They gave sufficient information for prospective occupiers or their agents to look at the site, ask questions and take their own advice.”

However, under cross-examination, he conceded that between Alnmaritec moving out in 2011 and the start of the Bradley Hall marketing in 2015, a number of new tenants had moved into the boat-builder’s former premises.

He further admitted that there had been no shift in the market for stock like this in 2015, but he did add that while there was ‘some success in attracting tenants prior, the problem was keeping them’.

There were questions raised as to why the county council had originally proposed deallocating the site for employment use as, when Mr Lytollis was taken through the evidence base, he could find no references to either protecting or deallocating the Willowburn estate.

Mr Lytollis also confirmed that he thought the planning inspector who carried out the independent examination of the neighbourhood plan was wrong for allowing the employment land policy as take-up rate evidence behind it was incorrect.

The housing scheme was refused unanimously by Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee last July.

The proposal was recommended for approval at the previous month’s meeting, but was deferred for a site visit. Between the two meetings, Alnwick’s neighbourhood plan passed referendum and led officers to recommend refusal at the July meeting.

Since the appeal was lodged, a second outline bid – this time for up to 100 homes with the county council-owned land removed from the proposed site – was submitted before it too was unanimously refused last month.

The final decision will be made by Planning Inspector Nick Palmer following this inquiry, which started on Tuesday and is expected to conclude next Wednesday.

On Tuesday (July 17), Sasha White QC, for the applicants, said that the neighbourhood plan is out of date as it relies on assumptions of the evidence in the Northumberland-wide core strategy, which was withdrawn by the county council’s new Conservative administration last July.

The following day, some of the tenants of the industrial estate were given a chance to share their views, highlighting their objections to losing what they see as a great place to do business.

By Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service