Saturday, February 06, 2021

Freeport East - the bid has landed

I've already mentioned the Freeport East proposal (coming to a parish near you very soon), and it has now been formally launched, with a rather soft focus video, and lots of talk about jobs, development and innovation. And, I have to say that it all looks very impressive.

So, what might it mean for our community, given that a major tax and customs site will be located on the edge of the Parish (we're the teal coloured circle towards the top of the map)?

I'll set aside the planning application for the time being.

Stowmarket, our neighbouring town is a bit of a poor relation to its neighbours, as an industrial hub and railway junction. Aspiration is not as high as it might be, although unemployment rates are low. An innovation hub may attract new industries, and offer better paid jobs to a town that has little in the way of attractions - we only got our first McDonalds last year, and fine dining is predominantly (although not wholly) something you leave town for. The shopping area is a bit limited, compared to similar sized towns and, in short, if you've got money to spend, you'd probably go to Bury St Edmunds or Norwich.

On the plus side, housing is reasonably priced even for Suffolk, transport links are good, with express trains to Norwich and London, plus regional services linking Ipswich with Cambridge and Peterborough. Throw in the A14, and you can get quite a long way quite easily.

In short, there is potential that could be unlocked by a successful bid that lives up to the hype.

The proposed location of the only tax and customs site outside the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe themselves, Gateway 14 is ideally located between the mainline railway and the A14, both of which act to frame the site, so providing a direct link to a major trunk road linking Felixstowe and Harwich with Cambridge and the Midlands.

Do I wish that it was further away, less immediate? Well, yes - I like the setting of my village as it is. But that isn't a viable stance, the site has been earmarked for developed for three decades now, and if I were a developer, it is exactly the sort of location I would want to get my hands on. And, as someone who wants the best for the wider Mid Suffolk community, an  influx of potentially well-paid jobs in innovative industries and technologies can only improve the lives of local residents, encourage new retail and cultural opportunities and support new facilities.

That offers me two contrasting challenges. As the Chair of the Parish Council, I want to seek a design for the development that makes it less intrusive on the eye, protects our rights of access and reduces the impact on residents (particularly those whose properties will be right up against the boundary of the site). I also have to have an eye on what possible benefits that might accrue to the community - new street lights, perhaps, or road improvements that improve traffic flow and reduce the need for braking. Will there be benefits in terms of s.106 funding?

As a council tax payer, I want the development to be as efficient as possible, in terms of generating revenue for the District Council, who own it, and in terms of bringing quality jobs to the area. I do wonder if the somewhat limited ambition of the developers, who talk about logistics and distribution, matches up with the aspirations of the Freeport team, who talk about innovation, green energy, and links to the universities across the region.

The former challenge is an immediate one - a hybrid planning application is all about setting down a marker in terms of landscaping, transport plans and building heights. In fairness, I tend to the view that the landscaping is pretty generous, and the potential road network offers some decided advantages in terms of addressing long existing issues such as the sharp curve at Clamp Farm. The proposed building heights are a significant improvement on what was originally suggested, but whilst 21 metres is still pretty intrusive, it may be difficult to reduce that much further. The devil will be in the detail, and the detail is a Parish Council issue.

As for what ends up on the site, the idea of large sheds is a bit depressing, but each of them will be the subject of a rather more concrete planning application, open to challenge. And, as it isn't clear who will want to take up the space, it is conjecture to start visualising the site as it might look in ten years time. Ironically, the Freeport East Board will probably have a lot to say about what their priorities are for potential customers, and my initial impression from sources is that their view is somewhat different to that of Jaynic, the developers appointed by Mid Suffolk District Council to manage and promote the site. It isn't a Parish Council issue, however, although the Campaign Group will be addressing the question, as I understand it.

So, my challenge is to keep the two issues at arms length from each other, focussing on what we know and are being asked to judge, as opposed to what might or might not be at some point in the undefined future. Fortunately, I've got Ros to ensure that my concentration doesn't wander...

No comments: