Giant A14 business park could become reality - but is council ‘marking its own homework’?
- Credit: SARAH LUCY BROWN/FRANK SHAW ASSOCIATES/SEALAND AERIAL
Major proposals to shape the east’s biggest business park look set to become a reality - but a district council is facing accusations of “marking its own homework”, because it owns the site.
The 156-acre Gateway 14, owned by Mid Suffolk District Council, is earmarked for land on the edge of Stowmarket.
Earlier this year, we revealed it so far had a total taxpayer-funded budget of £37million - of which £20m had already been spent on land.
Last year, the council’s commercial property arm Gateway 14 Ltd appointed Suffolk Park developers Jaynic to shape plans for the roads, infrastructure and outline of the scheme.
Those major plans are due to go before the council’s own planning committee next Wednesday - alongside seven other proposals, meaning less than an hour of discussion could be allocated for each.
It has prompted a call by the Mid Suffolk Green and Liberal Democrat group, which represents half the council as the official opposition, for a decision on the huge scheme to be taken by a separate meeting of the committee involving 16 councillors - rather than just eight.
Group member Penny Otton said: “The planning application for Gateway 14 is a sensitive one as MSDC own the site (through its company Gateway 14 Ltd) and are also the planning authority making the legal decision whether or not to approve the application.
“To outsiders, it may appear that the council is ‘marking its own homework’.”
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But council chiefs have hit back and say that if anything, the fact Gateway 14 is on its land - and it is also the planning authority - means the bid may “actually receive even greater challenge” to provide “clear public confidence” about the integrity and independence of the process.
“There are planning, governance, and constitutional reasons why this application will be considered by our development control committee next week rather than at the larger planning referrals committee, and this application in particular needs to be seen to be done by the book,” a spokesman added.
“For those who remain unconvinced and continue to believe this is the council ‘marking its own homework’, we do not believe that changing the rules for our own application, simply in order for it to go before even more councillors, is going to help persuade them.
"Instead, we hope they will follow the process and see for themselves how thorough it is.”
Ms Otton noted that the massive site - which borders the A14, Clamp Farm in Creeting St Peter, the Muntons Malt Factory and Cedars Park housing estate - has been subject to several past applications by private developers.
All have either been thrown out, or companies have been unable to finance their proposals.
She added: “While the principle of a business park has been established by previous outline permissions, what is causing controversy and filling up councillors’ inboxes with emails is the perception that this application is very different to what was previously promoted, and to the policies outlined in two documents: the Stowmarket Area Action Plan (SAAP) and the Development Brief.”
Council chiefs previously described Gateway 14 as an "exciting venture" and said they are confident it will create thousands of local jobs.
They added that it "will deliver a multi-million-pound boost for Mid Suffolk – especially the growth of creative and technology businesses and attracting inward investment”.
Campaigners living nearby, who are not against a development at the site in principle, previously expressed concern at how the current outline plans deviate from MSDC’s development brief set out in 2014.
Concerned neighbour Russell Stott claimed the council was “driving a truck” through its own brief of planning requirements drawn up when private firms were interested in developing the site.
He feels the proposal could be a “big win” if initial fears about “excessive” building heights, increased traffic volume, jobs variety and plans to preserve biodiversity were resolved.
Developers say the tallest buildings are located to the south near Muntons (already 27m high) while the smallest, up to 12m high, will be closest to residential properties.
A 5m ‘no build zone’ is also included at the edges.
“Gateway 14 and MSDC have heard many concerns from residents but we have seen little action to fix them - despite the solutions being achievable and viable,” he added.
“This is very disappointing because a successful development is one that works hardest to be good for all stakeholders.
“It’s an investment by the council on behalf of everybody and if the concerns aren’t addressed now, the alternative is many years of aggravation between local politicians, their officers, and resentful residents.”
Council bosses, able to borrow public money cheaply, are in a unique position to deliver a project of this scale where others have failed. But leaders acknowledge such proposals have to weather rigorous scrutiny and public consultation.
They pointed out that early feedback from residents has helped shape the proposals.