Will Unitary Authority Status be a Threat to our River and Greenbelt?
Last month both Preston City Council and South Ribble Borough Council voted in favour of merging and becoming a single unitary authority. Both councils are now working on feasibility studies but both councils have already stated that they recommend a merger and the formation of a single “super authority”.
South Ribble councillors have agreed to ask local people what they think of this proposal while Preston City Council have so far been silent on the matter of public consultation.
Councillors argue that a unitary authority can deliver improved services. However, the question many local residents are asking is how the proposed single unitary authority will affect our River and Green Belt.
Preston City "vision":
Preston City Council already have proposals for developing on the Green Belt in South Ribble. As long ago as 2005, PCC’s Big Lottery bid was staking a claim for the Riverworks project as the core of a new city centre for Preston which viewed South Ribble as part of a wider Preston City. (Of course the Big Lottery bid failed due to Preston City Council’s lack of public consultation!)
PCC want to develop “a new city along an underutilised river valley that currently separates two halves of (the) established urban structure” of Preston and South Ribble.
The Council see the Riverworks project as a symbol for the new City region, viewing their proposed Ribble barrage and Central Park building development as “connect(ing) together the two halves of the city” (PCC Lottery Bid Appendix A: RiverCity Project).
These ideas are reflected in the Central Lancashire Sub-Regional Spatial Strategy, a document drawn up GVA Grimley (property advisors and consultants) for a partner group which includes Preston City Council and South Ribble Borough Council. This document argues for “the major location for growth…..in the wider Preston area which ‘straddles’ the River Ribble”, building on Penwortham Green Belt a “new sustainable community supporting the growth of the City centre” (Central Lancashire City p.24).
To achieve this it is proposed that “consideration needs to be given to strategic Greenfield release” thus “a review of the greenbelt south of the River Ribble should be considered” (ibid p.18/19).
Some South Ribble Borough Councillors have made it clear that they see the Green Belt as “sacrosanct”. But the question is whether that opinion would hold sway in a unitary authority council chamber particularly in view of the stated support of the leadership of both South Ribble Borough Council and Preston City Council for the Riverworks Vision.
According to PCC, without the barrage (which threatens the most important estuarine river in Britain, if not Europe) and massive housing development and business park (on South Ribble Green Belt), Preston and the surrounding area will enter a “spiral of decline” and become a centre “for the retired, the disadvantaged and the unemployed” (PCC Lottery Bid).
However, Preston and South Ribble are already economic growth areas:
- South Ribble is already “one of the most prosperous districts in Lancashire in terms of employment potential and wealth” (PCC Submission to Boundaries Committee for England: Proposal for a New City of Preston Council).
- Preston is already “experienc[ing] one of the fastest rates of employment growth across all NW districts in the last 4 years (+35%)… Economic forecasts for this …area suggest a growth rate over the next 10 years well in excess of the regional average” (Lancashire Economic Partnership and The Northern Way Central Lancashire City Region Development Programme p.7)
- and all without causing potentially disastrous consequences to the River Ribble and surrounding Green Belt.
Whilst it is recognised that continuing economic growth is important, economic development which is so detrimental to the environment is not sustainable development and will cost more in the long term trying to put right the damage caused (the environmental impacts of the Cardiff Bay Barrage currently costs the Welsh Assembly more than £20 million every year).
Economic wealth is also not the only determinant of quality of life, and it is increasingly recognised that quality of life is determined and measured by access to our natural and unspoilt environment (Government Quality of Life Counts Report).
In response to residents concerns about the proposed Ribble barrage and development on Green Belt/Floodplain:
- Preston City Council leaders and officers have dismissed concerns as “scaremongering”, and have dismissed requests for public consultation about their Riverworks "vision" before delivery strategies and business plans as “accusing the council of not following correct procedure”. Under their Local Development Framework (currently in progress) policies about Green Belt (Policy DC1) and internationally protected conservation sites (Policy DC5) are under Review. Whilst in some areas PCC does show a willingness to support and enhance green spaces (such as the Local Nature Reserve on Fishwick Bottoms), so far residents are still waiting for consultation, and answers to their concerns about Riverworks.
- South Ribble Borough Council leadership has expressed support for Riverworks, but has shown willingness to engage with residents concerns, and have stated aims in their Local Development Scheme (see p.25) to protect the Green Belt.
- Lancashire County Council policy emphasises the protection of the River Ribble, Green Belt and Floodplain (Joint Lancashire Structure Plan 2001-16, policy 21) – a view supported by Lancashire County Council officers.
Under the current local government structure Lancashire County Council may therefore have a moderating influence on development proposals for the River and adjoining green belt.
Unfortunately, this moderating influence will be lost if Preston and South Ribble merge as a unitary authority as Lancashire County Council will no longer have an influence on planning decisions in Preston and South Ribble.
Whilst South Ribble residents are still waiting to hear how South Ribble Borough Council will consult them regarding the merger with Preston and bid for unitary authority status, and Preston residents are still waiting to hear whether they will be consulted at all, residents both sides of the Ribble can register for consultation in the Local Development Framework process which will form the blueprint for development over the coming years.
Concerned residents can also raise the issue of the potential threat to our River and Green Belt posed by unitary authority status with their councillors.