Planning ahead or falling behind?

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There are three issues planners have with the allocation of distribution warehouses, known as B8 in planning terms.

And these are summed up in a nutshell by Peter Weatherhead of DTZ Debenham Tie Leung: “Jobs, traffic generation and visual impact – there is nothing new in any of that.”

To be honest the fact that these issues are nothing new is part of the problem. Steve Williams of NAI Fuller Peiser says: “If you are just looking at jobs there are two things to say. It is a generally held belief that planners have an outdated view on what B8 is. And this could be perpetuated by the fact that there are a number of studies that planning authorities refer to regarding jobs per acre and these could be outdated

“When doing frame work study ratios these outdated studies are perhaps shaping wrongly the planners view.

“Secondly,” he says, “B8 classification in itself is too narrow. [The classification] covers such a wide group from document storage where there could be 10 employees per 18,850 sq m (200,000 sq ft) shed versus a retail pick and pack operation employing 400 people on 18,850 sq m (200,000 sq ft).

“If you are a planner how do you discriminate between the two?” says Williams. “What tends to happen is that the planners do not give consent thus sterilising the area for future distribution warehouse use. In the current scenario each case must be looked at on its own merits.”

However getting a local or even regional authority to do this can be very frustrating; a good proportion of them seem to be entrenched in their thinking.

Paul Harknett of Savills says: “On the jobs issue local authorities fail to appreciate the vital importance of [distribution]warehousing in getting products from point of production to the consumer. Society benefits from short delivery times and enormous selection and variety of products in shops and via mail order because of our sophisticated supply chain industry. It is wrong in my view to deny the very benefits that we all aspire to have by being picky – by possibly perhaps resisting or restricting the use of land or buildings to industrial/manufacturing rather than embracing warehousing and B8 as well – the term luddite springs to mind. It’s not about warehousing or industrial/ manufacturing. Industrial/manufacturing will go elsewhere; warehousing needs to be in a specific location to maintain an efficient supply chain.

“The fact that production gravitates to cheaper labour costs is no surprise we are off-shoring or moving but it is important to remember that distribution needs to be in the regions where the consumer lives. The classic example is LDA reserving Thames Gateway region for purely manufacturing – although there has been a recent advert by the LDA that’s said the area will work for distribution in general – however, there has been no official statement to that fact.”

Not all authorities hold such stringent views and many can be swayed if a coherent argument is put forward. Jeremy Hoare of Eden Park says: “A growing number of planners are becoming more aware of the economic benefits of granting permission for B8 units. Often the perception is that B8 provides the wrong sort of job. Planners are waking up to the fact that we are no longer the manufacturing nation we were once were and that we must adapt to accommodate the changing economic backbone of the country.”

But although it may be perceived that warehouses create the wrong sort of job surely a job is better than no job. And the traditional picture of warehousing is changing. Depending on what is being distributed a new B8 unit can provide a variety of jobs such as light assembly, pick and pack and shifts on twilight hours which can help people looking after families. Hoare says: “More planners now seem to see that as well as adapting to reflect Britain’s changing industries they also must adapt to allow the creation of jobs which fit in with the changing face of family life.”

He cites a recent example of planners at Coventry City Council who initially seemed reluctant to amend a planning application at Eden Park’s 4.5 acre £5.25 million industrial and distribution scheme Colonnade Point on the ProLogis park in Coventry.

“We had a company interested in leasing two 15,000 sq ft units which would create 30 plus new jobs. Their decision on whether to go ahead with the deal or pull out was to be based on whether an internal partition wall between the two units could be removed to create one 30,000 sq ft space. “Externally the change would have had no impact whatsoever and in terms of the overall square footage available there would have been no material difference. But initially the planners believed the units would have to remain as two separate operations, because they feared the change would create a larger single warehouse unit and not necessarily the right sort of jobs. Fortunately they realised that their initial concerns were unfounded and appreciated the benefits to the community as a whole of amending the permission.”

As well as the jobs issue there is the question of aesthetics/visual impact. Harknett says: “There is no doubt about it, they’re [distribution warehouses]ugly; you can address this by locating the building where they are less obtrusive – less of an impact form an visual point of view – locate in a dip and landscape; ensure that the selection of materials and colours are pleasing on the eye; don’t locate them on the gateway of a town but in an industrial distribution zone.”

There is the green issue those developers/occupiers that embrace environmentally friendly criteria can sometimes tip the balance in their favour with regards to securing planning permission. However, Weatherhead says: “Green might help at margins but it will not make those that are anti [distribution warehouses]fundamentally change their minds – the fact that it is a green shed will not make it accepted. But could tip the balance…”

Certainly the largest developers Gazeley and ProLogis have adopted the green shed route in an increasing number of new developments.

Weatherhead says: “Another issue is accessibility; [distribution warehouses]are HGV generators and it is clear that the government agenda to get goods vehicles off the road has affected the decision making process; those developments with rail heads get a very different reception and hence planning advantage as well as a tick in the sustainability box than those without.”

However, Emma Andrews of NAI Fuller Peiser says: “Not all sites can have water or rail ‘sustainable’ links. But logistics sites that are located in areas that capitalise on the activities of logistics operators are also sustainable, in that they minimise the length and number of vehicular movements. This is a hidden benefit of many logistics sites that is often missed by planning authorities.”

She says: “Many well located sites would accord with two of the government’s aims for sustainable development: the ‘prudent use of resources’ and the ‘maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth’. Given this, then why does the planning system not make sufficient provision for logistics sites in their spatial plans? Part of the answer must be rooted in the fact that Planning Authorities define ‘sustainable’ as being urban, brownfield sites.”

None of this is rocket science but where a local authority will not listen; perhaps it is time to locate in a different area and there are still plenty of authorities that have or are beginning to see the light.

Paul Harknett, Savills

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