A planning application was submitted to extend The Mall at Cribbs Causeway near Bristol and create 32,250 sq m of new retail space, professional and financial services and food and drink uses, leisure space, a hotel, market and affordable housing and a new bus station. South Gloucestershire Council resolved to grant outline permission for this scheme in November 2016 but it was called-in by the Secretary of State in March 2017.
The extension to The Mall was opposed by Bristol City Council and Bristol Alliance Limited Partnership, a Hammerson and AXA joint venture (who became Rule 6 parties to the inquiry) who are promoting a similar retail scheme at the Callowhill Court site in Bristol city centre. This city centre site is 8km from Cribbs Causeway and, critically, benefits from an allocation in Bristol City Council’s development plan for a retail-led development and also a resolution to grant outline planning permission.
In line with the Inspector’s recommendation the Cribbs Causeway application was refused, principally because the site was not allocated for retail development in South Gloucestershire Council’s development plan and because it failed the sequential test. Although the emerging new Local Plan for South Gloucestershire does consider there to be additional retail need in the area, little weight was given to this document as a material consideration due to its draft status.
Why did The Mall extension fail the sequential test?
The Secretary of State decided that the city centre site was sequentially preferable to the Cribbs Causeway scheme as it is suitable and available. There was much debate at the inquiry as to what should be considered when applying the sequential test in decision making. Interestingly, questions remained unresolved as to the viability of the city centre development because Hammerson did not provide its internal viability appraisal in evidence, which the Inspector accepted was commercially sensitive.
However, because paragraph 24 of the NPPF does not require viability to be a consideration when applying the sequential test in decision making, rather it should be considered at the plan making stage, the Inspector was able to disregard concerns and unresolved questions around viability, even though evidence was presented to the inquiry that the city centre scheme was not viable.
Developer’s reputation given substantial weight
Interestingly, in applying the sequential test, the Inspector placed substantial weight on Hammerson’s reputation, experience and evidence given at the inquiry, as the promoters of the city centre scheme. This is contrary to the RICS guidance which recommends that the nature of the applicant should normally be disregarded in financial viability in planning. However, departure from this guidance was justified as it applies to the residual appraisal methodology and this is not how the viability of the city centre scheme will be assessed
Benefits of the proposed scheme trumped
The benefits of the Cribbs Causeway scheme, namely the new market and affordable housing, employment opportunities and wider transport benefits, were acknowledged by the Secretary of State and given considerable weight and importance, but these were trumped in the planning balance by the failure of the application to satisfy the sequential test, as the proposed city centre scheme was considered suitable and available. If the extension to the Mall were approved, there would be significant adverse impacts on this planned scheme which would frustrate a city centre investment that is supported by the development plan.
In conclusion, developers promoting out-of-centre retail schemes on unallocated sites are likely to find their plans are frustrated if there is a competing sequentially preferable scheme that is promoted by a reputable developer, even if there are viability questions around whether the competing scheme can be delivered.