Transport assessment referred to in this letter: High Level Review of the Transport Assessment, Northgate End Car Park Development, Bishops Stortford

Kevin Steptoe
Head of Planning and Building Control
East Herts Council
Wallfields
Pegs Lane
Hertford
SG13 8EQ

19 March 2018
Dear Kevin

NORTHGATE END MULTI-STOREY CAR PARK (MSP)
Your Ref: 3/18/0432/FUL UTT/18/0460/FUL – Planning application for multi-storey car park at Northgate End: UTT/18/0460/FUL

  1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop’s Stortford Civic Federation to object to this planning application. Our grounds of objection come under a number of headings.

Nature of the Development

2. It is clear from the planning statement that this application forms part of a wider plan to develop the whole of the Old River Lane (ORL) site within the boundary of Link Road, much of which is at present occupied by surface level car parking. In order to free up the main site for other uses, the car parking which would be displaced would need to be located elsewhere. Both anecdotal evidence and parking surveys indicate that availability of short stay parking spaces is limited, which causes congestion in the town centre and discourages people from shopping there, so the application aims to provide extra spaces.

3. The application therefore is an enabling development for a much larger town centre scheme, but it is being presented as a free standing application. This creates a number of problems about how to assess it.

  • It is claimed that the application would lead to a net increase of 197 parking spaces. However, if the proposals are looked at as part of the overall development of ORL, another 49 spaces have recently been created on the site of No1 the Causeway and these too would disappear. The new entrance to the Waitrose car park would lead to the loss of another 20 spaces and 7 new spaces would be required for the B1 office development part of the scheme. So at most, the proposals create 121 additional spaces potentially available for public use.
  • Depending on the eventual nature of the ORL development, the new buildings and their occupants will generate traffic demands which will need to be serviced. Current indications are that it will include a new arts centre and cinema, retail units and 100 residential units. Since one of the ostensible aims of the wider scheme is to remove a significant amount of traffic from Bridge Street and pedestrianise Old River Lane, access for residential parking and service vehicles will presumably also need to be gained from Link Road by some means which has yet to be determined. If residents are instead expected to use the proposed MSP, that would reduce still further the number of additional parking spaces for use by the public. But access for service vehicles would be needed anyway.
  • The Castle Park is currently the subject of a Heritage Lottery funded upgrade. One of the key requirements is to improve connectivity between the park and the town centre which is currently very poor. This will require creation of a new pedestrian crossing – type and location still to be determined – across Link Road. The crossing proposed for the MSP is in the wrong location for this purpose.
  • There is no parking strategy for the town. An equivalent number of extra short stay spaces in convenient town centre locations might be created in existing car parks by reducing long stay provision, and re-providing it on edge of town sites supported by park and ride services. However, because this is a free standing application, only alternative locations for a car park of similar size have been explored.
  • The busiest part of the Bishop’s Stortford shopping centre is in South Street. The previous Henderson scheme freely acknowledged that one impact was likely to be to drag the retail centre northwards to the ORL site to the detriment of South Street. We do not know in any detail what will be developed on the ORL site itself, but the effect of this application, by moving a substantial municipal car park further north, can only be to reduce the attractiveness of the South Street retail offer. Whatever eventually is developed on the ORL site may compound that problem.

4. We therefore believe that to look at this in isolation as a free standing application risks repeating the mistakes we have experienced with previous town centre developments which have all been sanctioned on a piecemeal basis. To take one example from the recent past, the Leisure Centre was provided with no parking because the public riverside car park was immediately adjacent. Subsequently, the Council permitted development of the site with a private car park beneath and, not surprisingly, the Leisure Centre has struggled commercially ever since. By looking at this proposal in isolation from the development it is meant to enable, this too runs of the risk of putting the wrong facility in the wrong place.

Timing

5. When the repurchase of the Old River Lane site was announced in 2015, it was said that the income generated from existing uses of the site would yield a return of 5-6% – at current interest rates a good, risk free rate of return. Since the site is now in Council ownership the timing of any development is entirely within the Council’s discretion and we would therefore expect the Council not to bring forward proposals which would add to short term disruption and may lead to inappropriate long term uses.

6. In fact we believe that there are a number of reasons for not rushing into a development which may turn out to be misconceived.

  • Over the next 5-10 years the town will be undergoing at least two major developments on a scale we have not experienced previously – at Bishop’s Stortford North (BSN – already started) and the station goods yard. Subject to the content of the District Plan when finally adopted, construction activity may also take place at Bishop’s Stortford South. The development of the station goods yard in particular is likely to have a major impact on the operation of the town centre road network during the construction phase. To turn ORL into a building site at the same time when there is no developer or financial pressure to do so strikes us as being the height of folly which could do lasting damage to the commercial vitality of the town.
  • The traffic impacts and the effectiveness of the mitigation predicted by the developers of these schemes, particularly BSN, have been viewed with considerable scepticism, not least by the Development Management Committee of the Council. It would therefore be prudent to wait until the developments have reached a sufficient level of occupancy to judge how closely actual impacts compare with those predicted, before subjecting the highway network to further pressure.
  • The nature of retailing is changing dramatically with the rise of on-line shopping. For this reason too it would be prudent to delay development until there is more clarity about what development would be most appropriate for the ORL site.
  • Postponing development on this site would enable the views of the enlarged population of the town to be established about what leisure and retail facilities they want rather than making judgments now on the basis of ‘soft’ market research (whatever that is).
  • We understand that the suggestion apparently made by Waitrose that the ORL site should essentially be left as it is was dismissed as not worthy of consideration. The presence of Waitrose in the town is one of the reasons why people might choose to come to Bishop’s Stortford rather than shop elsewhere. Its views deserve to be taken seriously. It is widely rumoured that compensation for the losses they would have suffered was the final nail in the coffin of the Henderson scheme.
  • It is in any case a standard technique of public sector investment appraisal to compare investment options against a base case of doing nothing, and in the case of the ORL site we believe that there are good practical reasons for doing nothing for the time being, and no longer any developer pressure on the Council as owner to release the site for development straight away.

7. So if, belatedly, the Council recognises that development of ORL as a whole now runs the risk of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, and delays any larger development for a substantial period, the alternatives to this application as a means of providing an extra 121 parking spaces rather than 581 mostly replacement spaces can be looked at afresh.

Traffic Congestion

8. Turning now to the merits of the application itself, we think that there are enough shortcomings in the proposal to justify refusal of planning permission. We reach this conclusion on the basis of a professional high level review of the assessment which we commissioned from the transport consultancy, Edwards and Edwards. A copy is attached. In summary, the main problems with it are as follows.

  • The net addition to publicly available parking has been overstated by over 50%.
  • The traffic counts used to establish current conditions appear to have been made after the closure of Bishop’s Stortford College for its summer holiday. The College is an important generator of peak hour traffic on this part of the road network and so baseline traffic congestion is likely to have been understated.
  • As discussed above (para 3, second bullet point), in addition to the new junction arrangements at Northgate End, the Link Road will have to accommodate an additional pedestrian crossing to access the Castle Park and a new access point into the main ORL site. Neither of these requirements has been included in the modelling of the traffic impacts. This is typical of the salami slicing with which we are familiar – because this is being treated separately from the rest of the ORL development, the cumulative impact would never be assessed properly but only each increment. If the full impact of the development were to be understood at the outset, then the first stage of it might never be permitted.
  • In Section 5 of the Transport Assessment (TA), the impact of the car park is described under the heading ‘ Trip Generation’. This seems to us to be a misconception. Car parks do not generate trips (unless enlargement leads to new journeys which have previously been supressed). Car parks are traffic receptors. The trip generation arises from other types of development – in this case, new housing, particularly BSN, and any new town centre facilities such as those proposed for the ORL site and the goods yard site, as well as existing generators of demand such as the railway station. The flats and shops next to the car park would generate some extra demand but this is not likely to be significant. The relocation of parking to the MSP, the new entrance to the Waitrose car park and the creation of a new pedestrian crossing to cater for a flow which does not exist at present will of course have an impact on how traffic is assigned to the network and how the network performs.
  • It appears (para 6.1.4 of the TA) that projected traffic in the area for future years has simply been increased by the DfT’s standard uplift factors for traffic growth, with no consideration of any local circumstances which might influence growth. This seems to us a serious error. When complete, BSN will have a human population of some 6,500 and a car population (based on current levels of car ownership) of some 4,500. Northgate End will be the point at which all the traffic from BSN destined either to go to or through the town centre converges. So this should have been reflected in a specific uplift factor in assessing the performance of the junction, but seems not to have been.
  • Para 7.4.1 of the TA notes that the junction would be operating over capacity in future years even without the development. It then goes on to argue that turning the junction into a signal controlled one, with the development, would lead to some improvement in performance and that the residual impact of the development is not therefore severe. This seems to us to be a misconception. What the modelling appears to demonstrate is that turning the junction into a signal controlled one would improve its performance and should therefore be implemented anyway. Indeed, since the need would be a direct result of the BSN development, we would have expected it to be funded through the substantial S106 contribution that the BSN developers will make and would find it surprising if the authorities had not insisted on it.
  • It would therefore be more appropriate for the base case with which the impact of the development is compared is a signalised junction without development, rather than the current mini roundabout arrangement. The MSP should not try to claim credit for removing the congestion that the existing junction would experience.
  • The assessment does not appear to consider the effect of blocking back, caused by traffic queueing to get into the MSP or into the Waitrose car park. This is a problem frequently experienced with the Aldi supermarket in London Road (a development which Herts Highways believed would cause no more congestion than its former use as a car show room and garage).

9. Taking these points together, we do not believe that the TA provides an adequate reflection of the adverse impact of the development while it exaggerates the benefits. We anticipate that, by concentrating all the parking entrances and exits at the same point at which the traffic from BSN converges, creating a new pedestrian flow which needs protection by a signal controlled junction, making allowance for a further pedestrian crossing to the Castle Park, and creating a new access for the ORL site, the Link Road will become gridlocked.

Air Quality

10. It is not clear on what assumptions the largely favourable report on air quality was based. Clearly if queueing traffic becomes the problem we anticipate, then pollution at the Northgate End junction could rival the levels experienced at Hockerill. For residents immediately downwind of the development, the operation of the MSP itself could give rise to unacceptable levels of pollution. It is not clear whether the consultants have given thought to or attempted to model the impact of the car park operation in addition to the traffic congestion, or indeed what assumptions they have made about traffic congestion and queueing.

Conservation Area11. The Conservation Area Management Plan adopted by the Council identifies the whole area consisting of Grange Paddocks and Town Meads as an important open space. It recommends (para 6.143) that unless the need for small scale recreational or other community facilities are required, it is important that the site be protected from development and remains available as a diverse open space for residents of the town and visitors to the adjacent town centre. It is difficult to reconcile this recommendation with the erection on part of the site of a six storey car park, which would moreover be quite out of scale and keeping with the existing development in the adjoining area.

12. Although the Conservation Area Management Plan is silent on the ORL site, the previous development proposal by Hendersons was the subject of a review by the Urban Design Panel of English Heritage (as it then was). Having emphasised that the relationship between the ORL site and the existing town is critical, some of their comments would seem to be equally relevant to the proposals the Council are now considering. For example

‘One of the reasons the ORL indicative scheme includes very substantial blocks (which risk repeating the mistakes of Jackson Square) is that they contain very substantial and inflexible forms of development like the cinema which might better be sited elsewhere.’

‘There is a strong body of local opinion which values and welcomes the retention of the public space at the north of the site, but less audible public valuing of the supermarket car park. However, with its mature trees and outlook to the motte and to quality buildings on the edge of town, there are few better. It should only be built over after careful thought.’

‘Sites of this scale are routinely built out at one time and, whatever the conceit above ground, are in fact one building. The Panel advises that truly distinct and separate buildings should be constructed, perhaps over an extended timetable, thus allowing for flexible scheme development over time and reusability in the future.’

13. Whether viewed in isolation or as part of the wider ORL development aspiration, this application seems to be seriously at variance with the purpose of having a conservation area but all too characteristic of the past practice of East Herts Council of ignoring its own planning policies whenever it finds them inconvenient.

Alternative Parking Provision

14. As we suggest above (para 3, fourth bullet point), the preferable long term course of action would be to convert a proportion of long stay all day parking spaces in the town centre into short stay parking and relocate long stay parking to the edge of town. This would deal with the perceived shortage of spaces which deters people from shopping here and would avoid the high cost of extra town centre provision. The new car parks on the periphery would need to be supported by park and ride services, but as SDG noted in their transport strategy, such a policy requires a comprehensive plan for parking in the town and a ten year implementation period to bring about the adjustment in travel behaviour.

15. The Council adopted SDG’s strategy as their own over ten years ago but have so far not attempted to progress this part of it. Indeed they ducked the issue of park and ride when giving planning approval for BSN. So, bearing in mind SDG’s suggested timescale for implementation, some extra provision might be needed on a short to medium term basis.

16. There is of course an obvious location for these extra spaces. We suggest that all that is needed is to add extra floors to the recently provided car park on the site of No1 the Causeway. Unlike the application site, this one is wholly brownfield. As such it addresses one of the core planning principles set out in para 17 of the NPPF by reusing land that has previously been developed and is not of high environmental value. In contrast, the application site has never had on it more than surface level development (the former cattle market) and some of it is untouched green open space.

17. The No1 the Causeway site would involve no rearrangement of pedestrian or traffic flows and would place the extra spaces as close as possible to the existing retail centre. Moreover, it has retained and marked the 20 metre piles that would be necessary to support any new construction on the ORL site. By contrast, new piling would be needed on the application site. So, if extra spaces are needed for the short to medium term, this is the cheap and easy way to provide them. Two or three additional floors should be sufficient to provide the equivalent net increase in spaces. Such structures are never beautiful but it would at least simply be replacing the eyesore that was there before and, with similar dimensions, would be no more intrusive.

18. All development is meant to pass a sequential test and it is clear that with this alternative available, the application site fails it. Without the car park on the application site, there would be no obvious reason to proceed with the flats and shops, whose main purpose seems to be to hide the car park rather than being a suitable development site for such a busy junction.

Conclusion

19. We therefore believe that planning permission for this application should be refused. In summary our reasons are

  • When seen in the context of the proposed redevelopment of ORL only about 120 additional parking spaces would be created.
  • Developing the ORL site during the period when much of the rest of the town is a building site can only damage the commercial vitality of the town.
  • There is no pressing financial or developer led reason to develop the ORL site now and to do so is likely to lead to the wrong kind of development.
  • The TA relies on an unrepresentative baseline survey, does not model the impact of the likely growth in traffic arising from BSN and other developments, and does not allow for other changes to the Link Road which rejuvenation of the Castle Park and development of the ORL site would make necessary. It mistakenly compares the impact on the Northgate End junction with one that is unaltered rather than with one that clearly should become signal controlled anyway.
  • It would be wholly at variance with the Council’s Conservation Area Management Plan.
  • The preferable way to increase short stay parking provision in the town is for it to replace long stay parking. Some of this should be relocated to the periphery and serviced with park and ride in preference to building extra town centre spaces.
  • Given that the Council has not implemented its adopted transport strategy and has no parking strategy, some additional parking capacity may be needed in the interim to cover this transition.
  • That capacity could most easily be provided by adding extra floors to the facility at No1 the Causeway. The piling to support it is in situ and it would lead to minimal disruption of existing traffic flows on the road network.
  • The application therefore fails the sequential test for reuse of Brownfield sites and seriously understates the likely adverse impacts on that part of the road network.

I am copying this letter and attachment to Cllrs Warnell and Gary Jones and to James Parker and Maria Fuller at the Town Council with the request that the letter and attachment are circulated to members of the Town Council Planning Committee.

Kind regards

JOHN RHODES
PRESIDENT

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