How we did it: Making the case for green belt release

Cooperation was key to approval of plans for a hi-tech manufacturing complex in the South Yorkshire green belt, says John Geoghegan.

Consent winners: DLP Planning directors Lydia Sadler and Michael Edgar and senior director Roland Bolton at the proposed site of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Campus
Consent winners: DLP Planning directors Lydia Sadler and Michael Edgar and senior director Roland Bolton at the proposed site of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Campus

Project: Advanced Manufacturing Research Campus, University of Sheffield

Organisations involved: DLP Planning, University of Sheffield, Gardiner & Theobald, Bond Bryan Architects, Pinsent Masons, Curtins Consulting, AECOM, RPS Group, Sheffield City Council

Securing consent for development in the green belt can be a challenge. To satisfy council planners, applicants have to demonstrate that "very special circumstances" outweigh any harm caused.

Last October, consultancy DLP Planning won the backing of Sheffield City Council’s planning committee for a 100,000 square metre advanced manufacturing research facility at the former Sheffield City Airport site. Outline consent was secured in January after the secretary of state, to whom all major green belt applications are referred, decided not to intervene.

The application was submitted on behalf of the University of Sheffield. It proposed creating manufacturing and research facilities, a conference centre and recreational space next to the university’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, whose occupants include Boeing and Rolls-Royce. DLP director Michael Edgar says: "The key thing was to make sure the university got the necessary floorspace in a location that could link up with its existing advanced manufacturing centre. This seemed like an ideal site to co-locate with."

However, the project faced significant challenges, says Edgar. The site was designated as green belt in the council’s 1998 unitary development plan. Though it was identified for review in the council’s adopted 2009 core strategy, this review was never actually implemented, so establishing the principle of development in the green belt was key.

Edgar says that the DLP team and the university discussed this with the council’s head of planning and area team leader before submitting the application. "They said development in green belt would be problematic, but told us what to do to demonstrate the very special circumstances required."

The firm’s case focused on the economic benefits of the proposal, says DLP senior director Roland Bolton. To provide robust evidence supporting the application, it commissioned an economic assessment by consultancy Oxford Economics. The results indicated that the campus would create up to 1,880 jobs and add up to £74 million a year in gross value to the local economy, plus training and skills development opportunities. "That was powerful," Edgar says. The report also showed how the facility would help meet the objectives of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership’s economic plan and the core strategy.

The public consultation emphasised that the proposal would create skilled manufacturing jobs for local people, says Bolton. Edgar adds: "As it was a development in the green belt, we expected some objections. But we didn’t get any. The quality of the resulting jobs was persuasive."

As well as the economic case, Bolton says that DLP also highlighted the fact that the site had been earmarked for a green belt review in the 2009 core strategy. "It was the combination of those arguments which constituted very special circumstances," says Bolton.

Another obstacle was the threat of the High Speed Two (HS2) line going through the site. Though the location of Sheffield’s proposed HS2 station has still not been finalised, the promoters’ preferred option had until this week been at Meadowhall in the city’s suburbs. Edgar says this would lead to the line cutting through a small part of the campus.

With this decision "in a state of flux" when the application was prepared, DLP made provision for a worst-case scenario, placing the planning elements that would be easiest to reconfigure, such as car parking and drainage infrastructure, in areas that could be affected by the rail route.

The "essential" lesson, says Edgar, was to engage with council officers from the outset. Bolton adds: "Regular meetings were held that involved the appropriate decision-makers, which helped to ensure issues were identified and dealt with quickly." Discussions also involved the neighbouring authority, Rotherham Borough Council.

According to Edgar, Sheffield City Council planning officers helped with the highways assessment and suggested that DLP carry out an examination of alternative sites to strengthen the application. "That collaborative work and consistency of message between all parties, including the university, was really helpful," he says.

This work paid off when council officers found that the proposal’s "considerable economic benefits" met the very special circumstances test for green belt schemes – a recommendation that was backed by members.

Bolton says that reserved matter applications are now being processed for the first three buildings, with the whole campus due to be completed within seven years.

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