Developers Centros have announced they will not appear at the forthcoming public inquiry into the proposed Canal Corridor development scheme, leaving an already financially troubled City Council to stump up funds and defend the plans it has approved.
Announcing its decision, Centros, which claims it has long championed "full community involvement" in its projects from long before it became part of Government planning guidance, also criticised the Government for calling in the company’s development proposals for the £140m regeneration of the 10-acre brownfield site in Lancaster city centre.
Commenting on Centros announcemnt, campaign group It's Our City told virtual-lancaster they had spoken with the case officer at the Planning Inspectorate and have been told that unless Centros formally withdraw their applications the Inquiry will still go ahead, although, without the applicant being present the Inspector will probably open and then close the proceedings.
This means, however, that It's Our City and the other parties (SAVE, English Heritage and the City Council) will still have to continue to prepare a full case to present to the Inquiry. Council taxpayers will therefor be paying for the Council to defend the scheme which is being proposed by a companty's whose partners include Delancey, who bought Miller’s 50% equity stake in what was then Centros Miller in January last year and took on Centros Miller’s debt. In 2007, Delancey completed the last of a tranche of deals that saw it sell £1.5bn of investment, largely office, property – an indication, surely, critics say, that Centros could easily afford to fight its own battles and not leave them to a cash-strapped City Council to defend.
"Centros have pulled out of defending their proposed scheme at a public forum where for the first time it would be scrutinised in detail. Obviously they have conceded that the scheme is in fact indefensible," says It's Our City spokesperson Cal Giles.
"The question now is, will the city council use council tax payer's money to fight their case for them? Clearly, it would be a disgrace for the city council to decide to do so."
The company's criticism of government follows Centros’s highly successful opening last week of its £100 million arc development in Bury St Edmunds – which it argues has delivered hundreds of new jobs and claims has already been hailed a huge success by local people.
Centros executives have long railed against the British planning process on costs grounds. In July 2008, interviewd by the BBC's File on 4 for a feature on Urban Regeneration (PDF link), Centros Chief Executive Richard Wise argued the Government could do a lot more to help speed up the process.
Centros believes that the Government has unwittingly put the whole Lancaster regeneration project at risk at a time when the economy most needs investment and new jobs, and questioned the role played by English Heritage in campaigning for the call-in, having previously stated that it was happy for the local council to make the planning decision.
“Having been lobbied by English Heritage and local minority objector group “It’s Our City”, the Government has effectively valued a handful of mediocre unlisted buildings above the delivery of a major regeneration scheme and a thousand new jobs," argues Richard Wise, chief executive of Centros. "This is a complete contradiction of its policies and all the economic initiatives aimed at pulling the country out of recession.”
Centros believes that its Lancaster planning application should continue to stand on its own merits, as it has already stood up to extensive public scrutiny during a lengthy planning process that culminated in a special two-day City Council Planning Committee and a 15 : 4 vote in favour or the scheme.
It has therefore decided not to be represented at the forthcoming public inquiry.
“If the Government really wants to deliver much-needed regeneration for our city centres – especially in the current economic climate – then it must look carefully at both how it can encourage such development and reduce the level of bureaucracy hindering its delivery," said Richard Wise. "Further expenditure on our Lancaster planning application at this time would affect the scheme delivery and jeopardise some of the community benefits, and therefore there is no point in us spending up to another million pounds to be represented at the inquiry.
"While remaining fully committed to the project and Lancaster, we will simply await the outcome and only then decide how to progress the scheme further.”
It's Our City say that in the light of Centros refusal to back its plans in a public forum, the city council could now opt to abandon the scheme and "save themselves and the rest of us a great deal of time and expense over the next few months".
The group will meet next Monday to discuss developments.
• It's Our City Campaign Site
• Centros' Castle View Development Site
• Council Regeneration Strategy documents on the council web site (PDF files)