Sat, 30 Jan 2021
CALLS to pause the regeneration of the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) have been defeated.
West Berkshire Council’s executive voted in December on a phased approach to redeveloping the site over the next 10 years, and to invest a further £345,000 on consultancy support and feasibility studies to restart the project.
Planning consultant Avison Young says up to 280 homes, 3,473 sq m of office space and 5,400 sq m of space for other businesses could be built there.
The Liberal Democrats called in the Conservative-run council’s decision, raising concerns about its ability to manage the project, its conflict of interests and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the local economy.
They called for the project to be paused until an environmental assessment of the entire site had been carried out, the fall-out of the pandemic was more fully understood and the appropriate project management structure and expertise were in place.
Speaking at a meeting on Tuesday, opposition leader Lee Dillon (Thatcham North East) said his party was in favour of redeveloping the council-owned assets on the estate, but needed more confidence on how the project would be delivered in a period of uncertainty and additional risk.
He said: “We have never dared to start a project of this sort in such changing times.
“The pandemic gives us cause for concern on multiple fronts.”
Mr Dillon said the virus had been the catalyst for accelerating flexible working and that home working was likely to increase.
He added: “We often find during a recession, if you go through the cycles, companies retract, they take on less staff and they need less office space.”
Executive member for economic development Ross Mackinnon (Con, Bradfield) said he was “absolutely confident in the demand for offices”.
He said: “This is a time when we should be investing in our district’s future, both with the town centre planning work and the London Road regeneration.
“There are a myriad of business surveys I could quote to back that up.
“Around 55 per cent of people working from home feel disconnected from their colleagues and I think there will be a hybrid model going forward.”
A council-led review of how it lost a Court of Appeal case over procuring its chosen developer St Modwen found there had been no evidence of a clear business case and a lack of clarity over who was in charge.
Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) said there was no mention in documents of a project manager, but a project lead officer instead.
He said: “I contend that we don’t have the project-management expertise in-house for a multi-million pound project of this size.”
Mr Brooks urged the council to spend more on project management to “reduce the tremendous risk of the council having another real problem on its hands.”
Mr Mackinnon said: “All I’m hearing is a project lead officer is not a project manager.
“I was thinking to myself is that it, semantics over job titles?”
Gareth Hurley (Con, Pangbourne) added: “You don’t need someone with a job title of project manager, you need someone who knows what they are doing.
“You also need the right governance and decision making structure, which I believe is now in place.
“The council needs to demonstrate that we are open for business – if we take our foot off the gas the money will go elsewhere.
“If another town or city is more advanced or forward thinking, companies will look elsewhere and we will be left behind.”
Tony Vickers (Lib Dem, Wash Common) said there needed to be a stronger Chinese wall between the council as land owner and planning authority.
Dr Vickers said that a report from Avison Young highlighted that the football ground was higher than the rest of the site because it was built on landfill.
He said: “Until we know the nature of that landfill, the whole plan for the phasing to start with building on a football pitch, which incidentally is the only significant piece of green infrastructure (GI) in the whole area, and our policy says we must maintain and enhance GI, if you start a redevelopment by getting rid of the only GI there is, you are facing a big planning problem.”
Mr Mackinnon said that a full environmental assessment would be carried out as part of the preparation for a planning application.
He said: “We’ve heard that the Liberal Democrats support the regeneration, but tonight and historically all we see is it’s the Tories doing it so we don’t like it and we’re going to be awkward.”
Executive member for planning Hilary Cole (Con, Chieveley and Cold Ash) said there was a clear distinction between the two departments.
She said that she had stood down from the LRIE board as she had a conflict of interest when she was member for economic development and “didn’t want to put the council in a position where that could be questioned”.
The Lib Dem motion was defeated by five votes to four.
The Conservatives voted against with three Lib Dems and Green councillor Steve Masters in favour.