Claim that Amazon plan was held back due to fears of impact on elections

Kirklees Council has been accused of questionable behaviour after it emerged that senior figures asked for public consultation on a controversial industrial development to be delayed until after May’s local elections.

By Tony Earnshaw, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Wednesday, 18th August 2021, 7:00 am
An artist's impression of the proposed huge warehouse site near Cleckheaton, believed to be for retail giant Amazon
An artist's impression of the proposed huge warehouse site near Cleckheaton, believed to be for retail giant Amazon

Internal communications included as part of a Freedom of Information (FoI) response show that the consultants for a massive warehouse facility earmarked for land at Scholes, near Cleckheaton, were asked to hold off on going public with plans.

The request was made by the Leader of Kirklees Council, Coun Shabir Pandor, and the-then Deputy Leader, Coun Peter McBride.

The distribution centre is believed to be an Amazon depot.

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Leader of Kirklees Council, Shabir Pandor

Kirklees Council said the advice to pause the public engagement was given “because the elections might have had an impact on the level of participation and reliability of the consultation”.

In an email seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service and dated March 8, community engagement consultants Instinctif Partners said the aim was to have the facility open “in late 2023 in time for the busy peak Christmas period”.

The email to the council’s strategic director for growth and regeneration, David Shepherd, and copied to chief executive Jacqui Gedman, went on: “Once open, it will create thousands of local jobs contributing to the economic growth of the area. As you know, we are hoping to go out with public consultation as soon as is reasonably practicable but we are of course mindful of the local election consideration.”

In fact pre-application public consultation went live on May 8 – just two days after the local elections – and the application went before the strategic planning committee at the end of that month.

In the intervening period senior figures on the council, including Couns Pandor and McBride along with chairman of the strategic planning committee, Coun Steve Hall, and head of planning and development Mathias Franklin, were involved in meetings to discuss the Amazon proposals.

Couns Pandor and Hall were among the members facing re-election. Coun Hall squeaked home with a majority of just 148 votes – down from 1,445 in 2016.

On May 9 Mr Shepherd wrote: “Worth noting the Rockingham South ward in Barnsley was won by a coin toss at last week’s elections, having been a safe seat previously. The issue was the new Hermes facility, which divided local opinion. I’m pleased you chose to delay your public engagement in the circumstances.”

The revelation of the delayed announcement has angered locals who are committed to fighting the Amazon scheme. The 59-acre site between Whitehall Road, Whitechapel Road and the M62 will be entirely given over to a huge building that will be a third of a kilometre long, 178m wide and 23m high.

Action group Save Our Spen said the release of documents through the FoI process casts doubt on the planning process and the actions of Kirklees officials and raised questions concerning the actions of senior council officials in their relationship with the applicant’s agents “not only in the pre-planning stage of the application but also their involvement in the local elections”.

A spokeswoman added: “Why are council officials so concerned with a by-election result in other areas of the country? What has this to do with the application? Why say, ‘I am glad you chose to delay’?

“Furthermore, we question why it was felt necessary to conceal this information prior to the elections.

“The public engagement began less than 48 hours after the polling booths closed.

“The applicant was clearly ready to proceed ahead of the elections and so we question was this delay planned to benefit the council elections, as officials thought this would feasibly impact the result given how highly controversial this proposal is?”

Coun Pandor has also been criticised for backing the Amazon development on the basis of the potential for 1,500 jobs coming to the site.

That figure has been questioned by campaigners, who say evidence from other Amazon sites across the country shows far fewer jobs.

A council spokesman said the decision-making process for planning applications was “fair, open and legal” and that the vote on the Amazon scheme would be taken by “a cross-party committee of elected councillors at a public meeting”.

He added: “We often know about planning applications in advance of them going live as the applicant may approach us for advice during the pre-application process.

“The site in question was presented to the planning committee as a pre-application presentation, but we are not legally required to publicly share details of any application until they have officially gone live.

“Council officers do offer advice to applicants, and it is their decision if they wish to take this advice or not.

“In this instance, an officer advised the applicant to launch its public engagement after the local elections because the elections might have had an impact on the level of participation and reliability of the consultation.”