'A Rolls Royce or just some ugly sheds?': Inside the controversial A14 project paid for by you
- Credit: ARCHANT/GLASS CANVAS/GATEWAY 14 LTD
Sandwiched between a housing estate, a globally-exporting malt factory and the A14 is what has been dubbed a flagship, “Rolls-Royce-esque” development in the heart of Suffolk – of which a small district council is judge, jury, and executioner.
But what does the so-called ‘Gateway 14’ project, poised to transform 156 acres of farmland near Stowmarket into East Anglia’s biggest business park, actually mean for the county and those footing the bill? Emily Townsend investigates.
Hoping to succeed with a taxpayer-funded budget, where private developers have failed, Mid Suffolk’s District Council’s commercial property arm has now cleared the first hurdle in winning planning permission for the huge park off Mill Lane.
Backed by the Government as part of its proposed Freeport offering, where firms can import and export goods outside normal tax and customs rules, it’s hoped Gateway 14 entices a mix of industrial, logistics, research and development companies into Suffolk.
With proposals for roads, infrastructure and initial outlines green-lit on Wednesday by the council’s own planning committee, it means the authority can finally start delivering its vision for the prime parcel of farmland it bought in 2019 for £20million.
Its plans were approved by six councillors to two despite 71 public objections and significant concerns raised by local politicians, Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and the Gateway 14 Residents Campaign Group.
Traffic fears around Tesco and McDonalds, the size of landscape buffers shielding huge buildings from public view, and the proposal’s departure from the council’s own development brief set out when private firms were interested in 2014, were among issues raised.
MSDC, which is not only the landlord but also the applicant and beneficiary, insists any decision-making process by elected councillors is at “arms-length” from council officers working to deliver the project using expertise of developers Jaynic and agents Avison Young.
But while public authority oversight of such a major proposal unlocks access to funding rarely available to private companies – it also attracts much greater scrutiny, as the taxpayer is footing the bill.
Before permission was even granted, MSDC had spent £20m on land and set aside a further £17m pot for infrastructure – which is why campaigners are keen to see the public benefit in some way.
Russell Stott, of the Gateway 14 campaign group, is clear that residents do not oppose the use of the farmland for employment.
“We have been seeking to make this development tolerable to its neighbours, and more ambitious in what it can achieve for the community and the environment, whilst remaining a financial success,” he said.
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Jobs, jobs, jobs
One of the key, headline-grabbing benefits of the scheme is its jobs offering.
In a rare step, prominent business chief Chris Starkie of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) actually attended the planning committee on Wednesday to sing Gateway 14’s praises.
He dubbed the project – in one of the LEP’s designated ‘enterprise zones’, where land is considered ripe for industry – the “single most important commercial development in Suffolk for some years”.
While varying job totals and types have been touted in promotions for the scheme, an early report prepared by agents Avison Young estimated Gateway 14 could create between 1,400 and 4,826 full-time equivalent roles.
Most official predictions suggest 3,000 jobs could be created - a straight-down-the-middle estimate.
But Mr Stott, who speaks on behalf of a group of neighbours from Creeting St Peter and surrounding areas, warned planners that the scheme’s economic benefit is currently “unproven”.
He questioned why the Stowmarket area needed a 40% increase in jobs, adding that if the scheme was mostly logistics - to which the outline proposals dedicate the most floor space - average pay for communities “won’t improve”.
“The application relies heavily on the claim that the economic benefit of the development outweighs its considerable harms,” he said.
“But, these claims of benefits come without analysis, evidence, or proof that we have asked for.
“We wonder if Mid Suffolk has fallen into the trap of assuming that if you spend money, the benefits will follow.
He added: “Why is it not possible to designate more parts of the site to non-logistics, to meet MSDC’s stated claim for a mixed-use site intended to inflate local salaries?”
LEP chief Mr Starkie said jobs quality was more important than numbers and moved to quash fears of Gateway 14 “simply becoming a logistics hub”.
He cited the development’s ‘skills and innovation cluster’ - space for which has shrunk significantly since early designs were distributed last autumn - as a key source of high-quality roles in manufacturing and green energy.
Recognising it could provide growing space for existing companies, he also said there was a “strong pipeline of interested businesses” - such as a Chinese robotics firm that had expressed interest but was unwilling to relocate without planning permission.
Rachel Crick, from agents Avison Young, said Gateway 14 would “create a sustainable and high-quality business and logistics park generating thousands of jobs”.
In January, before Freeport status was granted, this newspaper’s investigations team revealed a report by Avison Young suggests Gateway 14's effects on the economy, once finished, are considered to be of "minor to moderate benefit" to the district and Suffolk as a whole.
Despite this, Mr Starkie suggested it could boost the economy somewhere in the region of £75million to £250million, with its contribution depending on the types of businesses choosing to locate there.
And he was confident Freeport status would lift it even further - cementing Suffolk’s place on the Government’s levelling-up agenda, aimed at reducing regional inequalities.
“It’s often said Suffolk is overlooked by the Government and its levelling up agenda, this is evidence that’s not the case,” he said.
“The freedoms given by Freeport status are designed to help attract high-quality manufacturing and other innovative businesses who would otherwise have chosen to locate overseas, or in other parts of the UK.”
It is a sentiment shared by Ms Crick, who said Gateway 14’s inclusion in Freeport East “will establish (it) as a hub for trading and investment”.
‘One chance to get it right’
Despite an initial consultation process, many residents feel their concerns about the development - which they say are aimed at making the development more “imaginative and rewarding” for the Stowmarket community - have been “largely ignored”.
Mr Stott told Wednesday’s committee he felt this was “especially embarrassing for a council-led development”, though Avison Young, on MSDC and Jaynic’s behalf, was clear they had changed large parts of the application in response.
Terence Carter, Green councillor for Stow Thorney where the development is based, said he felt MSDC being the landowner, the applicant, the beneficial developer as well as the planning authority deciding on the bid “will never look right to the public”.
“Mid Suffolk should be setting an example of how a green, sustainable, beautiful development can be created with imagination and determination,” he said.
“Instead, this is just going to be another load of ugly sheds.”
Meanwhile, fellow Green Rachel Eburne - who voted in favour - recognised MSDC was “wearing a multitude of hats” and said it was important the authority worked with the public as they have “one chance to get it right”.
Whether the council - and the taxpayer - will get a return on their investment through the scheme, remains to be seen.
There is heavy pressure to deliver - with Conservative councillor Tim Passmore insisting it must be treated like a “Rolls Royce” - an innovative flagship product that everyone can be proud of.