Eastleigh councillors have voted in favour of plans that will see over thirty trees bulldozed to make way for two drive-thru takeaways and a car dealership at the former civic offices site at Fleming Park.
The decision was taken at Tuesday night’s meeting of Eastleigh Local Area Committee despite local residents presenting a petition with over 800 signatures opposing the plans.
The council had also received 60 letters of objection and a representation opposing the plans from Eastleigh’s MP Mims Davies.
Just two letters were received that were in favour.
Around 30 people in total were in the public gallery.
Local residents and businessmen and activists from the town’s opposition political parties were united in their disapproval of the plans which will see the proposed units extend beyond the current footprint of the demolished Civic Offices and Magistrates Court and encroach even further onto the parkland.
The meeting heard how 30 individual trees plus ‘two groups’ of tress would have to be axed including mature A and B specimens.
A Norway Maple, London Plane, Ash and a large mature Oak would all have to be felled to make sure the car dealership showroom frontage would be visible to passing traffic on Leigh Road.
In a report Eastleigh’s Head of Countryside and Trees said the loss of trees in the plan was “particularly disappointing”, “regrettable” and “a considerable loss of valuable trees”.
Speaking from the public gallery Eastleigh resident and Conservative activist Simon Payne pointed out that Leigh Rd was an Air Quality Management Area due to existing pollution levels and that part of the council’s strategy to counter this was to plant trees:
“but you are taking them down”.
Several councillors were also unhappy at the potential loss. Cllr Chris Thomas proposed that the felled trees should be replaced, at a minimum, on a ‘two for one’ basis.
There was some support for this from other Committee members but a planning officer told them that some of the tress weren’t worth replacing.
Cllr Thomas wasn’t entirely happy with this and after a wrangle it was agreed that it be noted that ‘two for one’ replacement strategy should be starting point for an environmental mitigation plan yet to be drawn up.
At this stage it is not clear where and when any replacement planting would take place, or how much it would cost but after the meeting the Chair Cllr Bicknell said “the reality is quite a bit will be planted on Parkland”.
The current plans also propose the creation of some small wildlife ponds to compensate for the loss of woodland.
It will be the council who will be paying to replace its own trees as it is the council who is the landowner and is both the planning applicant and the planning authority.
On this point Conservative Cllr Judith Grajewski – who is not a member of the committee but is a County, Borough and Parish Councillor for Chandler’s Ford – described the arrangement by which the council considers whether or not to grant itself planning permission as “inappropriate”.
The committee also heard from some of their leaseholders.
Accountancy firm Langdown DFK lease the council owned Fleming Court business Centre which is home to 20 businesses who are based in the period farm buildings.
Two representatives from the firm told councillors they were unhappy that a fast food drive thru was being constructed just feet away from the listed building, saying the noise and smell would be a nuisance.
The proximity of a fast food outlet would be totally unsuitable to the business centre’s general ambience they added and was not what they’d had in mind when they signed up to the lease.
Protestors have previously staged a demonstration on the site, calling for the land to be used for affordable housing. Protest organiser, Eastleigh Labour Party Chair Steven Phillips, also spoke at the meeting telling councillors that the kind of low-paid zero-hour jobs associated with fast food takeaways would not allow people to get onto the housing ladder saying “low paid jobs are not the answer” to Eastleigh’s housing crisis.
A council officer explained the business case for the application saying that the site was in the motorway corridor which made it unsuitable for housing but ideal for business use and there was a need for land to be used for employment as well as housing.
The council were committed to getting a return from the land to help fund frontline services and keep Council Tax low.
He added the plan had always been that development of the site would pay for the refurbishment of Eastleigh House – the new civic offices in the Town Centre.
This is in keeping with current Liberal Democrat administration’s strategy of using their status as a local authority to borrow money at low rate of interest to build up a portfolio of commercial property in the town to use as an income stream.
The officer added that the reason that the council were considering developing the land for takeaways was because these were the only proposals that had come forward from interested operators, furthermore they insisted that they had not yet decided who the actual tenants would be – although the initial papers suggested it would be McDonalds and Starbucks.
Planning officers said the identity of the operator was irrelevant; “you are voting on the use of the land, not the end user”.
Cllr Thomas went as far as to suggest it might not even be used for a drive-thru.
“It could be a Harvester or a Costa”.
Residents from nearby Cherry Tree Court also told the meeting they were concerned by the increase in traffic a fast-food restaurant would bring but planning officers responded by saying that traffic levels on Leigh Road were so bad already a drive-thru wouldn’t make much difference and traffic would certainly be no worse than when the Civic Offices were in use.
Ukip activist John Edwards spoke from the gallery to say he believed the planning officers had underestimated the potential increase in traffic due to the drive-thru’s proximity to the motorway junction.
Mr Edwards also suggested there should be a local referendum:
“If you’ve got the residents behind you, let’s go for it”
But Cllr Thomas said he thought the idea of a local referendum was “daft in the extreme”.
The recommendation of the planning officers was to grant outline planning permission as there were no valid legal grounds not to.
This is normally enough to persuade councillors to vote as directed – a consequence of going against legal planning advice is that the applicant would have grounds to appeal and this can be costly.
In 2008 EBC had to pay £145,000 in costs after they went against the planning officer’s recommendation and blocked a development at Wildern Mill.
But it is not unknown for local Area Committee’s in Eastleigh to side with residents and vote against a planning officer’s advice.
In 2011 Bishopstoke, Fair Oak and Horton Heath local Area Committee refused permission for a takeaway shop in the square after receiving nine letters of objection and despite the planning officer warning them “you will get slaughtered on appeal” (Report here)
The situation in this case is different.
The applicant is the Council itself of which all committee members are also serving councillors.
To go against advice would lead to an awkward and unprecedented situation where the Council would have to consider appealing against the decision of one of its own committees.
In the end the committee members unanimously decided to go with the planning advice and grant the council outline permission.
The meeting had been a bad tempered at times with loud mutterings and heckles from some members of the audience causing the Chair to stop proceedings and call for order several times and after the vote there were calls of “disgusting”, “carry on ELAC” and “crooks”.
The application will now go forward to be discussed in greater detail in further meetings some of which will be held in public.
Afterwards protestor Victoria Mant told Eastleigh News she was ‘disappointed’ with the result but residents would not be giving up their fight.
In a press release issued after the meeting Cllr Bicknell said:
“This exciting development provides an ideal location for additional employment land for new businesses with the creation of jobs and opportunities for local people.
“The Council retains ownership of the site and the business premises will add to the council’s property portfolio that provides a significant rental income to the Council thus helping to keep council tax low, without cutting services, for everyone in the borough”.