Business park plan has already cost taxpayers £37m - so what is happening now?
- Credit: Archant
A stone’s throw from the A14 sits a prime parcel of farmland bounced about by planners for almost two decades.
In another 10 years, it could be home to a huge business park providing around 4,500 jobs – but opposition locally is already starting to grow.
Sprawling over 156 acres on the outskirts of Stowmarket, behind Muntons in Mill Road, are two plots of land with outline planning permission for employment use.
Mid Suffolk District Council (MSDC) – under the umbrella of business venture ‘Gateway 14’ - has spent almost £20m since 2018 of borrowed cash snapping up the land and preparing it for use as a 2.3million sq ft logistics park of the same name.
Another £17m, some of which could come from the Public Works Loan Board financed by taxpayers, has been earmarked by the council to pay for infrastructure on the site.
Since 2003 private companies have failed to develop the site, but the council is hoping to succeed where the private sector has failed.
Prime agricultural land in Suffolk would usually set developers back £9,000 per acre, according to industry estimates from 2018-19 – when the land was purchased.
However, location and transport links – particularly a spot next to the A14 – can push the price up and the addition of planning permission has occasionally seen valuations soar to as much as £1m per acre in the south-east of England.
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MSDC spent approximately £120,000 per acre (£19.25m in total) on land for the Gateway 14 site, a figure residents claim to have been told during public consultations was too high.
But council bosses stand by the price paid and say they feel it can be justified, given the scale and potential jobs. Chiefs say the budget for delivery is “comfortable” while ensuring value for money.
The main site was acquired for £15.4m plus costs, a price the council says was supported by an independent valuation, and the smaller patch formerly known as Stowmarket EAST for £3.85m.
“This is a key strategic site within our district – providing an opportunity to generate jobs, attract investment in Stowmarket and Mid Suffolk, provide existing local companies with opportunity for growth and support our wider vision for Stowmarket’s economic recovery post-Covid. So, yes, we feel it can be justified,” a spokesman added.
If given the green light, the first buildings could arrive by late 2021 or early 2022, with completion expected within 10-15 years.
- Is rare opportunity being ‘squandered’?
Looking out at the same spot he did back in 2003 when the site was first earmarked for development, Russell Stott, leading a new group of residents set up to scrutinise Gateway 14, has seen various private developers come and go. All were unable to finance the proposals.
Mr Stott questions pumping £37m into the site when development is expected over the next 10-15 years and the impact of Covid-19 is still unclear.
“Somehow, this time around, the council thinks they can make it work,” he said.
“When these chickens do come home to roost, and Gateway 14 may or may not become a white elephant, who is going to be accountable?”
Planning proposals, expected in early 2021, will be considered by MSDC itself - prompting further concerns among residents over proper scrutiny.
However, the council said any decision will be made by elected representatives and subjected to extensive public inspection.
Also, because it a council-led development, it may have more control over community benefits.
Campaigners, due to discuss concerns with council bosses in January, say they are not against development of the site and actually feel it is a “rare gem” of an opportunity for prosperity in the heart of Suffolk.
But they are worried that since MSDC must now seek a return on its investment, Gateway 14 is unlikely to deliver on its original promise of housing innovative businesses, leisure, and a wide range of jobs.
“There was an opportunity for the council to create and execute something for the future, for its community,” Mr Stott added.
“Instead, we fear it’s just going to squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on meeting current demand for warehouses and food processing because it has to make a return on the money.”
The latest draft masterplans, seen by this newspaper, include a smaller allocation than expected for research and development firms.
Original plans also suggested there could be hotels, pubs and a petrol station - the latter has since been moved from the proposals.
Council chiefs say the masterplans are indicative at this stage, with only proposed infrastructure being fixed.
A spokesman added: “If there is more interest from innovation and research and development businesses then they would be more than welcome – particularly with Stowmarket fast becoming a hub for innovation industries. However, we also predict greater demand from warehouse-based businesses in the wake of Covid-19.”
‘Huge’ boost to Covid recovery
MSDC leader Suzie Morley feels that Gateway 14 will play a major role in the district’s post-Covid recovery and deliver a “huge” economic boost to the whole region.
“We have been adamant that existing businesses and local residents should also have their say at the earliest possible opportunity, staging a pre-planning consultation so their views can be incorporated,” she added.
Meanwhile, Nic Rumsey of development partners Jaynic - hired to implement MSDC’s proposals last spring - said consulting with neighbours early has enabled them to tweak elements ahead of a planning application later this year.
But campaigners continue to have specific concerns over heights of large warehouses expected to cover up to 1million sq ft – which have already been reduced from a maximum of 28 metres to 21.
“They (the warehouses) will bring a long list of problems visually,” Mr Scott claimed.
“We are also concerned by environmental impact, 24-hour working, noise, light, traffic congestion, lorries parking overnight around the neighbourhood and drivers, with a need, but no toilet facilities. The list goes on."
He added: “If you have to build on 160 acres of countryside, be a good neighbour and work with us to make it better. Make it worth the price we are about to pay.”
Gateway 14 chairman Sir Christopher Haworth said the ambition is to meet demand for manufacturing, logistics and warehousing while also providing modern workspaces for smaller businesses – generating an estimated 4,500 jobs.
He added that the firm is working with the Greater South East Energy Hub to explore low and zero-carbon initiatives for the site, including transport.
Andrew Stringer, Green opposition councillor for economic development at MSDC, said Gateway 14’s proximity to the A14 provides a “unique opportunity” for transition to zero-carbon transport.
“It represents an opportunity to deliver 21st-century employment on a very future-proof site," he said. "We hope we could help grow our local food sector there and innovative technologies."
But he acknowledged a lot of investment is required to make it happen.
For now, able to borrow money at low interest rates, the council is in a unique position to succeed where others have failed, but with that comes the extra scrutiny of investing public money wisely.