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Rowhedge Business Park &
Land adjacent Donyland House
This objection should be read in conjunction with suggested Policies SG3, SG4 and SS14. In addition, reference is made to this site within other representations concerning Policy EC3 affecting Place Farm, Rowhedge Road, Old Heath.
My clients, Sarah Brice and Lee Fremel are the freehold owners of the business park and adjoining land which extends in total to 4.25 hectares. The business park currently extends to 1.4 hectares. In addition, the allocation suggested within policy SG4 extends the site to 2.3 hectares.
The current use of the site is predominantly brownfield, comprising the existing workshops and storage yard. A further extensive area of hardstanding was until recently used controversially by Ramplings Plant Hire, a B2 commercial operator and in respect of which the Council issued enforcement proceedings to secure the cessation of the 'unauthorised' use. It is this part of the site that has ironically been included within Policy SG4 as an extension to the business park. The remainder of the land is either scrub grassland or a belt of trees and ponds that extend along the northern part of the site and up to the rear of Carleton Court.
Access into the site is via Fingringhoe Road and from two points along Rectory Road. The easternmost access is positioned almost opposite the new bellmouth junction and estate road to serve the wharf housing site. There are a number of bus stops in Rectory Road which provide regular services to Old Heath and in to Colchester town centre. The bus route termination turning area is located almost opposite the Rectory Road entrance. A public footpath is available along the northern boundary of the site which provides a direct link into the village. It is recognised that the section of Rectory Road across the site frontage does not have the benefit of a public footpath, but this can be accommodated within the site itself. It can therefore be concluded that the site is in a highly sustainable location, particularly for residential development. In comparison, the majority of employees on the site currently travel by car to Rowhedge while the nature of the various businesses rely on heavy goods vehicles negotiating Fingringhoe Road, which is considered to be entirely unsuitable for the nature of traffic involved.
This objection is therefore twofold; it is not considered appropriate for the site to be safeguarded as a Local Economic Area (LEA) as identified within Policy SG4, while the potential redevelopment of the site for mixed residential and community based uses, together with other employment opportunities would be complementary to the village and more appropriate than other suggested sites within the settlement.
Safeguarding of LEA
The existing business centre comprises primarily open storage or vehicle based uses. There are two warehouse buildings used for B8 storage and distribution together with a motor vehicle workshop. The frontage on to Fingringhoe Road is dominated by a car sales display area. The northern boundary features a number of small storage yards and extensive storage of former shipping containers. Other uses include an 'operating' base for heavy goods vehicles, although this primarily involves the long term parking of vehicles. The remainder is used for open storage in connection with a scaffolding company. At present the site employs a total of 8 people, of whom only 1 lives in Rowhedge. The site is a below market rental underutilised yard, which in recent years has only attracted basic storage uses that are unable to afford rental space in Colchester. The owners have attempted to develop the site since they acquired the property in 2007. Prior to their acquisition, the site had historically been operated as a family business using the land as a plant hire depot.
The aim was to initially clear the site of the numerous scrap vehicles and waste and then invest in the condition and appearance of the buildings and site generally. This was intended to attract new tenants and increase the rents accordingly (including those of the tenants in situ, none of which had any tenancy agreements).There are 7 units on the business park of varying sizes, condition and facilities and other than 1 large unit, the others are around 100m².
Extensive marketing of the premises has been pursued, and this is still evident with the display board at the entrance in to the site which has been in place since May 2014. This marketing has been undertaken through Newman Commercial in Colchester, probably the leading commercial rental agents in the area.
Details of the marketing of the site can be provided, although it is not necessarily appropriate to submit this information at this stage for the purposes of this objection, particularly as some of the material contains commercial information that may be regarded as financially sensitive for various parties. Nevertheless, even in the past two years the letting agents have circulated particulars of the site to companies on their extensive database seeking premises in the Borough, together with advertisements in local newspapers including the County Standard and Evening Gazette. In May 2014 the agent stated that 'I have spoken with the agent handling the requirement for circa 0.25 to 0.5 acres site ...storage of building materials. Unfortunately his client has commented that the location of your site is too far out of town...'
The most significant interest shown in the site occurred in August 2014 from a company who wanted to set up 10 generator testing units within the largest building. It was however made clear that the company required a minimum 100m cordon on all four sides from any residential property due to the noise emitted from the generators while the operation required exhausts exiting the roof together with radiators and cooling fans. Notwithstanding the close proximity of the owner's house, it was deemed that such a use in close proximity to Rectory Road would not be conducive to the nature of Rowhedge.
A further enquiry from a crane hire company was received in January 2015. Following a visit to the premises, the company stated that the 'site was not going to work for him due to the location and access to the site for large cranes'. Another enquiry from a waste transfer company also did not proceed. Most recently, in July 2016, there was a tentative enquiry from a car sales company. No further response was received.
The owners have offered a variety of incentives to attract tenants including very flexible terms with 'loose' agreements to encourage start-up businesses to rent including phased and deferred rents. A rent free period has also been offered. While this has allowed some short term tenants for ad hoc storage space, these arrangements have also meant a lack of security. On several occasions income has been lost due to unpaid rents and lack of notice to leave. Currently there are 2 units empty and the majority of the yard is available. Newman Commercial is now reluctant to market the land and units as they deem the site not commercially viable and therefore a waste of their time and effort trying to market it.
As owners, a company called Vehicle Repair Solutions was set up in 2007, which was a vehicle repair business. While they were initially able to attract high volume work from a car supermarket, when this contract was taken back 'in house' they were left with practically no business. Despite various types of marketing and incentives to capture local business, insurance work and to get fleet work, the location, lack of footfall and the difficulty in employing and retaining qualified, quality staff meant the company was placed into insolvency. Since then, the owners have managed to attract a car sales operation tenancy. This recently obtained planning permission (reference 150917) solely on the condition that it was primarily an online sales business with viewing by appointment. This ensures limited traffic and therefore means they employ only a couple of people. The majority of the site is used for the storage of their vehicles.
More recently an attempt to diversify their business operations involved a scheme to use Donyland House as a wedding and events venue. This application was refused having regard to the impact on the local highway network (reference 1501255) and several noise complaints.
During the last few months a long established company 'Albion Insulations' who rented a unit for their insulation business (offices and storage) have also closed down their business.
It can therefore only be concluded that this site cannot continue in use as a business centre without significant financial capital (even if this were to be forthcoming from a lender) on an entirely speculative basis. While the current activities do provide employment for 8 persons, this level of use cannot justify the retention of the site for solely business purposes as suggested within Policy SG4. The nature of the various businesses does not represent an optimum use of the land, and there is no evidence that circumstances are likely to alter in the foreseeable future.
Against this backdrop, reference is also made to the representation made by Robinson & Hall to the allocated employment site at Place Farm, Rowhedge Road, Old Heath. As noted within this representation, a proposal for development of this site for employment purposes is imminent. Not only will this development provide a welcome extension to the well-established and popular industrial estate, it is located close to Rowhedge in an entirely more suitable location than the site subject of this objection. Moreover, with the proximity of part of this extensive site adjacent to the sewage treatment works, the suitability of the land for those 'bad neighbour' types of uses now found at the Rowhedge Business Centre could more appropriately be accommodated at Place Farm.
The potential for other forms of employment uses to be accommodated at the Rowhedge Business Centre site will be explored later in this submission.
As a footnote, it is also necessary to mention the current and pending rights afforded to the land owners under the Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2015 which allows for the re-use of commercial premises for residential purposes. This is an option that the owners may need to consider further.
The owners of the submission site are extremely conscious of the concerns of the community towards further development in the village without appropriate infrastructure. Despite the extensive development schemes now underway that are changing the face of the settlement, very little has been achieved towards improving or even upgrading the local infrastructure. My clients have actively engaged the community with their proposals, including meetings with the Parish Council and Rowhedge Residents Association. Throughout these discussions, the issues that have been raised particularly concern the need for improved medical facilities and enhanced education opportunities. While the potential for Rowhedge Business Centre cannot aim to satisfy all of these ills, there is considerable opportunity to provide some of the most sought after needs. For this reason, negotiations have been ongoing with NHS England and their partner Ashley House plc, to the introduction of a new medical centre for the village. Ashley House plc are a leading Extra Care Housing and Health Property Partner working with providers and commissioners in the public, private and community sectors.
The requirements of the NHS for Rowhedge have previously been expressed in some detail to the Council. This scheme will enable those plans to come to fruition. This scheme will not only provide an essential facility for the community, it is also located in a suitable position for convenient access and direct connectivity with the entire village. The Council may recall that it was the issue concerning access that prevented community facilities being included within the wharf development scheme. The proposal would also provide enhanced employment opportunities.
An indicative plan showing the potential redevelopment of the submission site as prepared by Ashley House plc on behalf of the NHS is also enclosed. This is only a feasibility option at this stage, but clearly shows the nature of the intended development. The medical facility would also allow the consideration of 'assisted living' units to be accommodated elsewhere on the site. Given the time constraints involved in this submission, further details will duly be provided to demonstrate the ongoing and positive negotiations on behalf of the NHS.
Support has also been obtained from the existing medical practice, as shown within the attached correspondence.
The discussions with the local community has also indicated the strong possibility that the existing doctors surgery could be converted into a pre-school nursery, thereby improving early years education and introducing further employment within the village. The nursery would in turn move from its current temporary part-time location within the village hall and would potentially allow additional use of part of the village hall for other local needs.
The introduction of a new medical centre would also allow the opportunity for other local facilities to be provided. This could include a 'drop in' facility for other related medical groups, such as a chiropodist, screening services and the like. A similar arrangement has been introduced within a development at Capel St Mary.
Having regard to the nature of commercial traffic attracted to the site at present, and the condition of the local road network, the removal of this conflict would be welcome to the community. The proposed entrance to the site would remove the existing access points and feature a new access offset from the bellmouth junction recently constructed for the wharf development. This access can be shown to meet the requirements of the County Council highway engineers, thereby improving highway safety.
It is evident that a section of the site benefits from a woodland and ponds, creating a welcome landscaped feature in this area. This area is privately owned with no access to the public. My clients have been in discussion with Essex Wildlife Trust (Andy May) to consider whether this land could be conveyed to that organisation on a peppercorn rent, thereby securing the long term future of this wildlife site and providing a facility to be enjoyed by the public. This arrangement would also improve connectivity with the village by introducing access from this part of Rectory Road to the public footpath than runs along the northern boundary. The provision of this land for public benefit would far exceed any other previous development in the area towards the provision of public amenity space.
Support from the community towards the redevelopment of this brownfield site is already evident within other submissions to the Council, albeit that this project has only recently been revealed. When compared to the option suggested by the Council, it is evident that the development of the Business Centre will not involve the 'creeping' of further development to the north west of the village and the concern of coalescence with Old Heath which has been the key issue for many residents in relation to the site at Battleswick Farm. The Parish Council made similar suggestions within their response to the Issues and Options consultation last year, a copy of which is attached. Concern was also raised by the Parish Council towards the continued use of the Business Centre towards the activities that are attracted to the site due to the nature of the rural road network. Discussions with the Council's Policy Officer also revealed the opinion that the business park 'could be an excellent site for housing'. A copy of this correspondence is also attached.
Finally, the business park site has attracted numerous complaints in the past through the impact of the various authorised uses. The complaints have usually referred to the unsuitability of the B2 and B8 industrial nature of the business park, which is not regarded as being conducive to the village setting. While a B1 use for the entire site may resolve some of these concerns, the only tenants that have been attracted to the site have been those that can be referred to as 'bad neighbour' or unattractive long term storage activities. Without considerable investment, which does not exist, the use of the land will at best only continue in the same manner as at present.
On the one occasion that the owners introduced a business that was not dissimilar to the historical use of the site, they were met with an enforcement notice and court proceedings. The consequence of this action was the insolvency of the company and the loss of 30 jobs. It is therefore clear that both the local community and the district council are not prepared to allow those business uses that are the only forms of commercial interest in the site, severely if not terminally prejudicing the viability of the business park. The alternative scenario would be an appropriate residential scheme for approximately 60 houses, a medical centre, provision of specialist housing for those with needs in the community, enhanced employment prospects and spin-off benefits for other sites in the locality. The provision of public access to a retained landscaped wildlife site would also be an enhanced opportunity for the locality. The suggestion for a mixed residential/employment development would be on a 'brownfield' site that is no longer viable other than for open storage uses, in a location far more preferable to the local community than any other option presented to the Council.