And it’s official… there really is no shortage of land

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We gave you some real life facts from the marketplace earlier this week to show that, contrary to the claims of Wye’s would be developers, there is no shortage of commercial land in the area. Now it turns out that planners have known this all along… because they were told so in a detailed consultants’ report in 2002 which concluded the area had 70 years’ supply of commercial land, mostly on existing developments, if the pace of change continued at the rate of the 1990s.

And here’s another interesting fact to be gleaned from this detailed independent investigation of the area’s economic capacity for the future: the authors believed the development of the area was held back in the 1990s because the owner of two of its major industrial estates wanted to charge far more than the market could bear because their ‘background and circumstances may not have disposed them to pursue development opportunities as vigorously as they might have done’.

The biggest owner coming in for criticism? None other than Eurotunnel Developments, the Chunnel’s property arm. Its boss for much, if not all, of the period in question? None other than David Brooks Wilson, now, it seems, the man to transform the economy of Wye.

The report was produced in December 2002 by the planners Roger Tym and Partners working for the Halcrow Group, on behalf of the South East Regional Authority. Its criticism of Eurotunnel Developments must have been a little awkward for Mr Brooks Wilson, since he was a member of SEERA’s executive committee and planning committee. In July of that year he stood for election to the post of vice chair of the planning committee… and lost.

This is a long and detailed document — you can find a copy below. But it asks a number of very interesting questions that are still relevant four years later, among them what has held back growth and development in the area, and what are the opportunities for growth.

It says that in the previous decade the area had been a highly competitive location for manufacturing, in part because of a ‘relatively generous supply of well-accessed greenfield sites’. But the euroboom predicted to come from the opening of the tunnel has, it seems, never really materialised — or the expected use of the area for distribution industries. Nor has there been much success in attracting inward investment to the likes of Orbital Park and Waterbrook. The report cites only two cases of that, and one is the departed Connolly Leather.

It also casts aside the idea that the area needs a science park. Talking of Eureka, originally pitched as a boffin hutch but forced by economic reality to think otherwise, the report says…

They (people who contributed to the survey) argue that Ashford, whose best-performing sector is manufacturing, should make space for manufacturing on its most attractive site, and conversely that the vision of Eureka as a science and technology park is out of tune with market realities. These are convincing arguments. One option would be to create a dedicated office area on part of Eureka only, opening up the rest of the park to land industrial uses so long as they meet high standards of design and landscaping while retaining planning policies which protect its parkland or campus character throughout.

And in fact that is pretty much what has happened. Nor is the report very flattering about the way Eurotunnel, under David Brooks Wilson, went about developing Orbital and Waterbrook.

Ashford’s major commercial development opportunities are concentrated at just three sites, which until recently had just two landowners: Eurotunnel Developments (Orbital, Waterbrook) and Trinity College Cambridge (Eureka). It is argued that this oligopolistic ownership structure, together with the impact of book values established before the property slump, throughout the 1990s led to unrealistic land prices and consequently discouraged take-up, particularly by local businesses. In this view, high prices help explain the slow rate of take-up at Ashford during the early to mid-90s, when prices were over-pitched. Take-up only began to improve as market conditions improved, and caught up with the land price.

In short: people got greedy, and paid the price. But it doesn’t end there…

A further ownership-related constraint may be that the owners’ background and circumstances may not have disposed them to pursue development opportunities as vigorously as they might have done. Thus in the 1990s, under the ownership of Eurotunnel — a company whose principal business is unrelated to property development — Orbital Park only offered land for sale, not speculative or even design and build space; this only changed in the last year or so with the advent of Salmon Harvester (new owners who bought the sites from Eurotunnel). Eureka remains in the ownership of Trinity College, whose motivation may be very different from that of a ‘professional’ property developer.

Perceptive people, aren’t they? As we noted a few days ago, Eureka currently has 96 empty acres up for grabs, Waterbrook 114 acres. All proof that this official, quango-commissioned report appears to have hit the nail on the head four years ago when it concluded, ‘…it seems obvious that, in terms of simple quantity, the supply of land in Ashford is more than adequate to any reasonably foreseeable levels of demand… County Council monitoring data indicate that Ashford’s net development capacity at April 2000 was some 630,000 sq m providing 70 years supply at the take-up rate of the previous decade. Much of this land is in the three major out-of-town business parks close to motorway junctions.’

The real problem has been turning the existing available land over to actual use, and that, says the report, has been restricted by ‘ownership, infrastructure and possibly planning.’

In a nutshell…

  • Ashford doesn’t need new development land
  • Science doesn’t sell

Twenty years on from their instigation, these three estates are still chasing customers to fill vast tracts of land. Before committing their institution to any further cost and controversy in pursuit of this grandiose scheme, Imperial’s governors should ask themselves why Wye Park would be any different.

Economic background paper, Halcrow Group

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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