Market towns under threat
Hell and high water – the questions behind Towcester’s warehouse nightmare
by Geoff Carverhill
As the sheer scale of proposed warehouse developments in and around Towcester comes to light, many questions are being asked by residents of this historic market town as to how the town and its residents came to be placed in such a depressingly invidious position. More to the point, who is responsible for this calamity and why?
cgi - DHL
A cgi view of the DHL development in which Towcester town has disappeared!
Firstly, let’s take a step back in time… If, thirty or even twenty years ago, anyone had heard me say that Towcester would be a major logistics hub for the Midlands, with huge warehouses built right in its historic midst, they would have been quite within their rights to get the men in white coats to come and take me away and lock me up! But that is exactly what will happen if this nightmare scenario goes ahead.
The developments, which have been the focus of a vigorous campaign by the Save Towcester Now group (www.savetowcesternow.org), consist of four individual applications:
AL1 – a hybrid planning application for warehousing development on land north of Bell Plantation on the A5 by DHL, with an adjacent application, AL2, the size of both sites combined being 32.06 hectares (79.22 acres).
AL3 – a hybrid planning application with predominantly B8 warehousing on land east of Tiffield Lane to the north west of
AL4 – Woolgrowers at Tove roundabout on the A43 – a 4.5 hectare (11.12 acres) hybrid application.
A fifth application should also be considered: a hybrid, but again, predominantly B8 warehousing application 2 miles south of Towcester on the A43 at Shacks Barn, Podium Business Park near Whittlebury.
AL1 and AL2 are, in essence, an underhand attempt by DHL to obtain a much larger site than if they applied for AL1 and AL2 as one application. The height of the warehouses, in some cases up to 80 feet (24.5 m), will be seen from miles away. If just one of these sites is implemented it will be a bad outcome for the area but it is the combination of all four that spells out a catastrophic environmental nightmare for Towcester.
In 2014 West Northamptonshire Joint Planning Unit put together part 1 of their Joint Core Strategy, the opening Foreword of which states:
“The importance of Strategic Planning which shapes and makes the places in which people live, work and play cannot be overstated. The alternative would, in all likelihood, result in an uncoordinated approach through speculative developer-led planning and related applications. This West Northamptonshire Joint Core Strategy Local Plan is a key document in ensuring places are shaped and made in a way which meets the needs of the people of today whilst ensuring the needs of future generations are safeguarded.”
So what went wrong?
In 2011 South Northamptonshire Council commissioned a ‘Towcester Masterplan’ which was aimed at defining Towcester’s strategic profile for the future. Land allocations were highlighted in the plan, which stated that “no development was envisaged for north of the A43” and that a ‘Green Edge’ would be established as areas for no development. A subsequent final version of the Masterplan was issued, which mysteriously included the land allocations north of the A43, and which, according to the ‘Save Towcester Now’ campaign group, also included a number of erroneous references. These were carried over to the SNC Local Plan Part 2, adopted by South Northamptonshire Council in July 2020. The document had enough holes in it to make a kitchen colander look watertight!
Had the original ‘mistakes’ on the map of the second version of the Masterplan not been made, the Local Plan would not have contained quite as many ambiguities; the result has been to allow developers to exploit these ambiguities to their advantage. For example, if a Strategic Plan contains references to the types of employment use a land allocation must have, such as B1, B2 and B8, and there is not enough demand for the smaller B1 and B2 uses, a developer can then fill their site with B8 warehousing, which is exactly what will happen in Towcester.
CPRE Northamptonshire has highlighted the potential issues from an environmental and health and well-being standpoint: 24-hour noise and light pollution, together with serious associated traffic and air pollution issues, as well as Towcester being a high flood risk area. Since AL3 was granted outline planning permission on 22 January 2022, the scenario is looking bleak for Towcester and especially the outlying village of Tiffield.
Even SEMLEP, the South East Midlands Local Economic Partnership, the organisation responsible for encouraging business investment to the area, does not include Towcester as an area for logistics development. The Rt. Hon Dame Andrea Leadsom, the Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire, sent a strongly worded letter to WNC outlining her constituents’ concerns over the future of Towcester. The Town Council, Parish Councils, individuals and campaign groups such as CPRE Northamptonshire have voiced their opinion in the form of robust rejections of these developments, but there seems to be a concerted effort by WNC to nod these applications through, for whatever reasons, whatever the cost!
If the developments get the final go-ahead, they will impact negatively on the semi-rural, historic market town setting of Towcester for generations to come.