Amazon in Cleckheaton: Negotiations to divert Spen Valley Heritage Trail closer to the M62 'began a year before scheme was made public'

Agents for retail giant Amazon were liaising with council officers in Kirklees to divert a footpath cutting across the proposed site 12 months before the controversial scheme was made public.

Diverting the path is key to being able to build a massive warehouse on land near the M62 at Scholes. Correspondence accessed via a Freedom of Information request reveals staff with Exeter-based transport consultants Vectos were working with council staff to move the footpath, which forms part of the Spen Valley Heritage Trail, to run close to the M62.

Campaigners fighting the mammoth development say heading off objections early would ensure the scheme had a smoother route through planning - and lengthy delays would be avoided.

A spokesman for campaign group Save Our Spen said it feared that the “smoothing over” of the application to divert the public right of way “could potentially ease the the main planning application through the planning process.”

An artist's impression of the new warehouse

One email dated June 26 2020 says Vectos “would like to get the ball rolling” prior to submitting a formal pre-application scoping document to Kirklees Council’s Highways department.

It included a concept for the diversion, which had been “informally discussed” with council staff previously and which was described as “the preferred option”.

The email goes on: “It would also be helpful if you could confirm the best way to programme the necessary diversion works. When we spoke, I believe you mentioned undertaking an informal consultation whilst the planning application was being prepared/determined so that the views of local residents and consultees are taken into account [during] the design process.

“I believe that the intention of this would be to minimise any objections to the diversion order?”

What was eventually revealed to be a fulfilment centre for Amazon first appeared before the council’s Strategic Planning Committee on June 3, 2021. At that meeting chairman Clr Steve Hall (Lab, Heckmondwike) expressed relief that the plan had been unveiled.

He said: “I’ve had to keep this thing under my hat for about the last nine months. I must admit it certainly shakes you when you see how big it is.”

The plan for the 59-acre site between Whitehall Road, Whitechapel Road and the motorway has been back and forth to committee. It is currently the subject of a formal intervention by National Highways, which wants a critical traffic assessment to be fully completed before the scheme comes before committee again, possibly in December.

Save Our Spen said it had “very real concerns” about the actions of the applicant, agents acting on their behalf, and Kirklees Council throughout the planning application, including during the pre-application stage.

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The spokesman said: “Communications obtained through Freedom of Information requests give rise to further questions for Kirklees Council and go towards the public perception of bias and the lack of transparency.

“This latest example, regarding the public right of way issue, is another in an ever-increasing list, where Kirklees have serious questions to answer.

“Any attempt to minimise the local community’s ability to make an objection in any planning matter is absolutely unacceptable.”

Local councillor John Lawson (Lib Dem, Cleckheaton), who is against the scheme, said Save Our Spen was “absolutely right” in seeking clarity on how the Amazon application got into its current state.

He said: “Their campaign speaks to some of the inherent weaknesses in planning in general and, in particular, how public interest and confidential information are balanced.

“On one hand applicants need to seek guidance informally but, on the other, residents deserve better than to have details dribbled out in a way that muddies the waters.

“Unfortunately the nature of the main application has not been smooth, which has only added to the sense of unease felt by people in the village who are already anxious about what missing or inadequate reports mean for their future.

“On the idea of moving the footpath, I really can’t see how the current section of the Spen Valley Heritage Trail could be enhanced by running it along the motorway. It’s not credible.”