Zut alors! A French planning dispute has placed fresh question marks on some of York’s key building projects. GAVIN AITCHISON looks at the background and talks to the man responsible for
sorting it out.
WHAT happens now? That’s the question on the minds of town planners across Europe. From Aberdeen to Athens; from Barnsley to Barcelona, officials are scratching their heads.
A ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has triggered a political earthquake, and the tremors have been felt right here in York. Derwenthorpe, Castle Piccadilly, the Barbican and Hungate
are four of York’s biggest development projects in years, but question marks have been placed over them all.
The consternation can be traced to Roanne, a small town in the Loire region of France. Its population is only 35,000 and few Britons outside its twin towns of Nuneaton and Bedworth have probably
even heard of it.
But the town is at the centre of mass confusion. Last year, a local contractor Jean Auroux objected to the way the town council chose the developers for a regeneration project. He took his case to
the ECJ, and won. Not only that – the court also ruled that councils had to carry out Europe-wide tender processes for any major projects in which they were doing more than merely selling land.
This may sound obscure, but the ramifications are enormous – as big as the Jean Marc Bosman ruling that revolutionised football transfer laws in the 1990s. Except it seems the ECJ has not simply
moved the goalposts, but changed the rules of the game altogether.
Bill Woolley, city strategy director at City of York Council (CYC), is the man who has had to get his head round it all here.
“The change in interpretation of the law that Roanne brought in has pretty much sent shockwaves throughout the property industry, both nationally and internationally,” he said.
“It changed the fundamental understanding everyone had about the requirements of European procurement.”
Town centre regeneration schemes, such as Castle Piccadilly in York, are particularly affected. Councils in Kingston and Eastbourne have already had to rip up agreements with developers. But why?
Mr Woolley says councils can still sell land to anyone they want, without having to go to European tender. But only if the council does not decide, or set conditions on, what happens to the site.
When the council sold St Leonard’s Place to Rushbond Plc, for instance, it was a straight sale. Aside from subsequent planning applications, the council has no say in whether the buildings becomes
a hotel, shops, townhouses or anything else.
The confusion comes when councils want to influence matters. The Roanne ruling means EU procurement rules must also be followed when the council gets a ‘concession’ out of the scheme – in other
words, influence; a bit of control; or some say in what happens.
Such cases are common, especially in town centres. Councils want to shape developments, rather than giving the money-men carte blanche.
“It is for the community benefit that we do it; no other reason,” said Mr Woolley. “That is why we exist.”
So at Castle Piccadilly, for instance, the council could just sell its land and let the buyers do as they wished. But it wants to make sure the site is developed in a way that it believes benefits
Talks have been ongoing with other landowners in the area, La Salle and Centros. But those talks are now to cease, and councillors will tomorrow set the ball rolling on a Europe-wide tender
Mr Woolley is visibly unimpressed with the ECJ’s stance. He says it is “sad” that the ruling puts so much emphasis on opening up the market, which he fears is at the expense of community benefits.
But long term, York could suffer less than most.
“We have a lot fewer land holdings and we are taking a very prudent route,” he said. “It will have a much more profound impact on other authorities.”
That notwithstanding, Mr Woolley says the tender route may deter some potential developers, who won’t want to shell out on projects they might not win. And the council could have to spend more time
and money when dealing with major schemes.
Amidst the confusion, Government officials and the European Commission are frantically trying to draw up some guidelines to give clarity to town planners everywhere.
Until then though, there remain as many questions as answers.
QUESTIONS have been raised over Hungate, Derwenthorpe and the Barbican, all of which involve land sales that have already happened.
The European Commission is investigating Derwenthorpe. The CYC case has been presented to the Commission and Mr Woolley says a decision is imminent. A complaint has also now been made over the
Barbican sales, and it too could be investigated.
But Mr Woolley points out the irony in both these cases – neither the European Commission nor the British Government can order the contracts already signed to be overturned.
So even if they condemn CYC’s actions, they cannot do anything to prevent the proposals continuing.
Consequently, Mr Woolley says he is “confident” that Derwenthorpe will go ahead and that the Barbican redevelopment will continue as planned.
As for Hungate? He says the council sold its land there on a straight sale, without seeking any influence. The buyer, Hungate (York) Regeneration Ltd, brought forward its own plans, so Mr Woolley
thinks that will be unaffected too.