DEVELOPERS have denied claims they paid “lip service” to creating a manufacturing site at one of the Omega units after they sought permission to enable it to be used for logistics.

An application for the variation of a condition of planning approval for unit four at Omega West to seek flexible B2 and/or B8 use across the site came before St Helens Council’s planning committee.

The unit previously had planning permission for B2 (manufacturing) use but Omega sought permission for a B8 (logistics) use to also be allowed on site.

The controversial Omega West project, on green belt land in Bold, on the boundary of St Helens and Warrington, was approved after a public inquiry in November 2021, following the nod from the council’s planning committee.

The development was an extension of the already existing Omega site, in Warrington.

Works on the first three units at Omega West have already taken place, with occupiers so far including discount retail giant Home Bargains and Iceland.

The Home Bargains warehouse, unit one, during its construction

The Home Bargains warehouse, unit one, during its construction

At the town hall committee meeting, council planning officer Daley Parsonage recommended to councillors that the variation for unit four be approved.

He said the “main consideration” of the proposal is the “economic impact of the proposed application”.

He said it has been “marketed for B2 use without success and with a lack of demand for a pre-designed B2 unit”.

He added the applicant said the “flexibility for a B2 or B8 use for the site will allow for a greater opportunity” for “investment in the site”.

The Iceland unit at Omega

The Iceland unit at Omega

Mr Parsonage added “officers believe the amendment “would not diverge from very special circumstances considered to outweigh the harm to the green belt” when consent for the development was originally granted.

Colin Graham, development director of Omega, said to the committee that the unit could remain empty for “years” if the amendment was not permitted.

He cited the size of the unit and said that Omega not being a freeport tax site, unlike Parkside, in Newton-le-Willows, has meant they “cannot compete” in terms of attracting “advanced manufacturing” occupiers.

Mr Graham, director at Miller Developments, who are behind the Omega scheme, said: “Omega West was marketed as a whole for B2 and B8 right since the Secretary of State consent back in November 2021” and unit four in particular has been “marketed as a B2 use”.

“We still haven’t landed a B2 occupier and I wanted to explain why, there are a number of reasons”.

He said the first related to the “size” with the unit up to 420,000 sq ft adding “the number of B2 requirements coming through to this level is comparatively rare”. He said “Omega is known predominantly as a logistics location, it’s a very prominent site, it’s probably the best logistics site in the north west of England”.

Mr Graham noted there are two B2 occupiers at Omega, in Domino’s and Plastic Omnium, which are in Warrington.

Unit three at Omega West

Unit three at Omega West

He added: “The biggest issue for Omega is that we are not within the Liverpool City Region Freeport tax site. Parkside is and if a manufacturer is looking at St Helens if you go to Parkside you get a number of economic benefits.

“We don’t have that and simply cannot compete at that front on any advanced manufacturing requirements.”

Mr Graham said to the committee: “This is a very stark decision between a change of use and investment or no activity, it is as stark as that.”

He added the variation “does not preclude B2 use, this is a flexible consent, we’ll continue to market for B2 and B8 and hope we can attract something in due course.”

The committee approved the variation at the town hall meeting

The committee approved the variation at the town hall meeting

Committee member Cllr Gomez-Aspron said it felt like they had been “paid lip service at some point”.

The Labour councillor said: “We’re not rehashing the debate about the green belt it is a site that should be developed and it is on a network that is next to Omega.

“The bit that I’m struggling with is it sounds to me that the building design has never been suitable for manufacturing purposes so we end up with something that will never suit that purpose, it feels like we’ve been paid lip service at some point and then we are now saying ‘it was never going to be that anyway because we’ve built it far too big’.”

Cllr Gomez-Aspron said to Mr Graham: “If 400,000 sq ft is too big and they’re all asking for 100,000 sq ft, why didn’t you build four units on one plot and go for the manufacturing approach? I also get that point that manufacturing doesn’t necessarily mean high-skilled jobs.

“Why did you apply for a unit so big when that so out of kilter with the manufacturing market and how does your marketing favour one of the other or both (manufacturing or logistics), are you actively dong it or do you know the easy money is in logistics?”

Cllr Seve Gomez-Aspron

Cllr Seve Gomez-Aspron said he was "not happy" with the change of use but added he could find no reason to vote against the variation

Mr Graham replied it was “absolutely not” that they favour one marketing strategy over another.

He added it is “absolutely not the case” that they have “paid lip service” to the idea of having manufacturing on the site and said “the reason we went for units that have to be a minimum of 300,000 sq ft was related to the Very Special Circumstances case to release the site from the green belt. There are other sites out there where you can meet those requirements without taking land from the green belt, if you go for something smaller there’s a very significant chance that planning consent would not be granted”.

Cllr Gomez-Aspron added: “The idea that every other piece of land in the north west has to be resigned to logistics because Freeport incentivises everything else doesn’t really do it for me.

“I’m not strongly against logistics, it’s about having a mixed economy in the borough with logistics playing its part in that and when we go back to the green belt release debate my intent for that was always that we get a mixed economy out of it. We always get compared to Warrington, the reason Warrington booms is because they didn’t put their eggs in one basket, they have got a mixed economy.

“The idea we are reigning ourselves to single-use because freeport exists I think is a very new and nuanced debate when for the majority of time it didn’t and society still functioned.

“I find it difficult at this stage to find where you’re coming from.”

Committee member and independent councillor James Tasker added: “It seems ridiculous at this stage to blame the freeport because the freeport seems to have been an idea for three or four years.

“It just seems, like has already been said, lip service for it, it seems from a business perspective how do you get to this stage now where you say, unless we change it, it’s not going to work? How can it potentially fail so quickly? It doesn’t seem right.”

Cllr James Tasker

Cllr James Tasker

Mr Graham added: “I do take umbrage with the term lip service, it’s not what we’ve done. We’ve put an awful lot of time, an awful lot of planning, a lot of effort into everything that’s gone on at Omega West”.

He added: “I take no joy in coming back and asking for this realisation, it’s a harsh reality in the world I live in. If we have an occupier looking at a site, the freeport four years ago, it wasn’t there, it’s there now, it’s in our face, the infrastructure’s in for Parkside.

“I am not saying we will never get a B2 requirement ever but my strong feeling is we could be waiting and I do mean years, as in decades before something comes along. If that’s the committee’s decision we are bound for that, I think we will sit there and nothing will happen on the site for years.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for St Helens generally, you’ve not got the benefits of a prominent logistics park and an advanced manufacturing park at Parskide. The picture generally for St Helens is good but this is a specific issue affecting Omega West.”

Committee member Cllr Andy Bowden asked that “if the size of the unit was determined by the need to take it through the planning process”, could Mr Graham “clarify, that marketing and market considerations were taken into account on the size of it?”

Cllr Andy Bowden

Cllr Andy Bowden

Mr Graham said: “There’s a planning condition on the consent that any unit has to be a minimum of 300,000 sq ft. We’ve ended up with a shed at unit four of up to 420,000 sq ft almost by dint of the fact that when you develop unit one, two, three, the size of the plat left that could accommodate if it was built out to its full extend 420,000 sq ft.

“The way it’s been marketed is it’s a shed of up to 420,000 sq ft.

“When the original planning case for Omega West was developed if you’d gone smaller than that there were other sites available so the planning arguments to have green belt released were not strong.

Cllr Jeanette Banks asked if there is a prospective buyer already for B8 use. Mr Graham said: “Absolutely not, what we have is a potential funder who is willing to pay for the building to be constructed but that deal is depending on a planning consent that would allow for a B2 and B8.

Cllr Richard McCauley, the council’s cabinet member for regeneration and planning, expressed “disappointment” at the proposed amendment.

He said the original decision to approve Omega was a “tough decision” but that part of that was for that “mixed use development” so “we’re not reliant on logistics as a borough for employment.

“That was always one of the hooks for us. I know (why) Seve says that, as though (we’ve) been played a little bit.”

Cllr Richard McCauley

Cllr Richard McCauley expressed "disappointment" at the proposed change of use

Cllr McCauley added: “I’m certainly not saying all logistics jobs are bad and all B2 are good, it always been a case of that mixed economy. It’s a difficult one, I appreciate what you say about Parkside and freeports. I do think there is room for B2 in the area still. It comes to me as a disappointment."

Head of planning at the council Kieran Birch told councillors: “What’s proposed would still allow B2 use, the evidence suggests the number of jobs would be the same or higher if it was a B8 use so the harm is very hard to identify. We’ve been comfortable recommending for approval.

“If members weren’t to support this you would have to be saying B8 use is unacceptable, in my opinion that’s wrong.”

Cllr Gomez-Aspron said that despite “not being happy with changing use and wanting a mixed economy” that he “can’t find a single reason in policy that we would refuse it”.

He said: “We have to pick a reason in policy to refuse it” and claimed “our hands are tied because of government choice and policy. I can’t get to that point to find a legit reason to refuse it”.

He added: “I would encourage anyone who is thinking to vote against it for political reasons, give us a reason, give us a reason to refuse it, I can’t find one.”

Committee members voted to approve the variation to allow logistics use at the unit.

Cllr James Tasker and committee members Cllrs Paul Hooton and Karl Collier abstained from the vote.