Amazon Havant – Breaking the silence

It’s been a long time since we’ve posted an update on the 32 New Lane site but following the first, long-overdue face-to-face meeting between the site owner, the developer and the residents, facilitated – or not, as it happened – by Havant Borough Council (HBC) representatives, this update is also long overdue.

  1. The public meeting on 4th August
  2. Progress on the Amazon site
  3. Job opportunities at 32 New Lane
  4. Coming next, Amazon Bognor
  5. HBC ‘validation’ of incoming planning applications
  6. Why did the identity of the ‘intended occupier’ matter?
  7. Traffic generation at 32 New Lane
  8. How long will Amazon be a New Lane tenant?

The public meeting on 4th August

Twenty months and two contentious planning decisions after planning consultant Natalie Fellows had hand-delivered a clearly misleading leaflet to an uncertain number of addresses, the first low-key public meeting between the landowner, the developer, the council and local residents was finally held at St Alban’s Church in West Leigh, on 4th August, 2022. The ‘intended occupier’, Amazon, still hiding behind a non-disclosure agreement, was not present.

The meeting had been called by St Faith’s ward councillor, Imogen Payter, in response to a barrage of residents’ complaints about the excessive noise and dust emanating from the TSL Projects development works at 32 New Lane. Complaints have been aired from addresses right across the eastern side of Havant town.

However, as far as that disruption was concerned, the meeting was little more than a token gesture given that the worst of the construction disturbance was over. By 4th August, the piling had already stopped and the residents of the eastern part of the town could all start to hear themselves think and breathe again. The event did, however, provide the first welcome opportunity for local residents to engage in open dialogue with the developer and the owner, free from the unsatisfactorily restrictive format of the formal Planning Committee meetings.

Representing the developer, on-site project manager Charlie O’Sullivan had been set up to ‘take one for the team’, caught between a fixed-price contract, a letter drafted for him under a TSL letterhead and a planning decision that actually had nothing to do with him. Sat alongside Charlie were Chris Fry, Chief Exec of Kingsbridge Estates representing the landowners, and Natalie Fellows, Kingsbridge Estates’ local planning consultant.

Also present were three of the members of the February 2022 HBC Planning Committee responsible for the decision to strip the two local authorities of real-time control over the traffic generated by the 32 New Lane operation.

The audience of around 20 local residents was ‘small but vociferous’. ‘Small’ because the almost mythical ‘letter from Charlie’ which had been ‘hand delivered to local addresses’ seems not to have actually made it through most of the local letter boxes. ‘Vociferous’ because it was the first time that the developer, the contractor and the council had actually bothered to openly engage with the public about the development.

Before the meeting managed to stumble in any sort of direction, a New Lane resident who lives just south of the hospital fired the first shot, a sawn-off shotgun blast of a question about the appalling lack of communication over the past two years. Aimed generally at the front of the room, it was a blast that left those at the front dusting off virtual lead pellets while the other residents, rising to the challenge, started loading and taking aim themselves.

A resident of Nutwick Road, immediately to the east of the development site, told the meeting that while the west side of her road had received ‘Charlie’s letter’, the opposite side of the road had been ignored. In the minds of considerate constructors, it seems that sound only travels a few feet.

Other Nutwick Road residents complained of Sunday mornings interrupted by construction noise, leaving Charlie to sheepishly admit that ‘yes’, they had been working on some Sundays. Matters didn’t improve when the meeting learned that HGV deliveries for the construction site had turned up lost on the wrong side of the railway in the Nutwick estate. That didn’t really bode well for the future operations at the site; “they’d been following their SatNavs, so what’s going to happen when the Amazon traffic does the same?

Inevitably, someone from the audience decided to push their luck and ask whether anybody could confirm the rumour that the ‘intended occupier’ will be Amazon, the usual stock answers of ‘we don’t know’ or ‘we can’t tell you yet’ came back. So when asked more directly “can you deny that it’s Amazon?“, Chris Fry gave a nervous smile, shuffled, sidestepped and said “I won’t answer that question” before proceeding to repeat an answer to a long-forgotten earlier point. (A career in politics might beckon if the forthcoming recession starts to hit the commercial property business.)

As Chris admitted, he’d “love to be able to say who it was” but having signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the ‘intended occupier’ he was unable to do so, caught between a rock and a global distribution behemoth as it were. His contract is signed and provided that Charlie delivers on time and budget, the cash is in the bank. (We’re sure he’ll be ok since we understand that Charlie and the subcontractors he manages have a well-established track record in delivering these new-style Amazon distribution centres.)

It was a good job that there were so few residents there because if ever a public meeting needed a strong chair this would have been it. The general expectation was that Cllr. Payter would be taking that role having set up the meeting, however we learned later that moments before the start, she’d told the rest of the panel that she didn’t want to take the lead. In the vacuum that was left, Ms. Fellows also ducked the opportunity, leaving the meeting to run itself, moderated by the more experienced voices of Charlie and Chris along with some mostly polite assistance from the floor. The other two looked on, one with an increasingly worried expression, perhaps realising why her former role model avoids such public confrontation, while the other just smiled nervously, looking increasingly out of her depth.

Having quietly observed the lack of focus, St Faith’s newest councillor, Phil Munday, rose to his feet from his place in the audience and calmly offered the two would-be chairs some helpful, head-teacherly advice on how to take the meeting forward. He needn’t have bothered, his two young pupils seemed to lack the experience to read the situation in the room.

The original Planning Committee members present were former councillor Jackie Branson, seemingly unable to resist a return to the scene, and two of the standing deputies, Cllr. Imogen Payter and Cllr. Richard Stone, neither of whom had stepped up to stand in for the absent member of the Planning Committee on 3rd February this year.

Ms. Branson’s contributions to the meeting were, like her contributions to the planning decision on 3rd February, as convincing as her arguments to the St Faith’s electorate in May. Her rather pointed contribution about the ‘really strong conditions’ that had been added to the second planning application simply dug her hole a little deeper. Perhaps she needed reminding that it was the first planning decision which had applied rigorous traffic management conditions to the development plan and the second decision that had handed back virtually all control to the occupier, Amazon.

It was pointed out from the floor that ‘Charlie’s letter’ had stated that the Community Liaison Panel was intended to be facilitated by the occupant – i.e. Amazon – which seemed to go against the spirit of the original suggestion made at the planning committee meeting by Cllr. Gary Hughes. Given the recognition by the Planning Committee of the strength of feeling by the public, then the residents felt that chairmanship of the Community Liaison Panel should be shared on an equal basis between Amazon and one of the ward councillors, thereby giving a direct route into HBC, as a key stakeholder and interested party, if a complaint needed to be addressed. It was agreed that the first meeting of the CLP should take place at least two months before site operations begin.

As a veteran of these Amazon projects, this public meeting was probably all in a day’s work for Charlie. It was almost tempting to feel sorry for him, stuck in the middle between a hopeless planning decision and a fixed-priced contract. At the end of the day, while the noise and dust from the site were definitely on his watch, the primary target of the residents’ fire was always going to be Havant Borough Council’s Planning Services and the Planning Committee that had put the problem in the neighbourhood in the first place. Charlie was quite prepared to admit to his faults, breaking the rules by working on Sundays and allowing his incoming deliveries to stray from their mandated routing. When asked whether he was aware of the next 9 weeks of traffic hold-ups likely to result from the works on the B2149, he admitted to ignorance of the fact and thanked the residents for their warning.

Leaving the ‘intended occupier’ to manage its own traffic monitoring looks like an increasingly unwise decision.

Chris Fry made a good impression through his level of engagement with the audience, despite being hampered by the now rather ridiculous NDA. He was clearly starting to realise that the community communications activity that he’d asked his troops to carry out had fallen way short of the mark. While he was legally bound to maintain the confidentiality of the ‘intended occupier’, he told the meeting that he expected the announcement to be made in November, perhaps earlier if he could influence that decision.


Progress on the Amazon site

Progress from completion of groundworks to the erection of the front part of the steel skeleton of the distribution warehouse has taken just one week, thanks to the Scottish team of steel erectors who travel around the country erecting these ‘new-style’ Amazon distribution warehouses.

One week’s work.

The pressure will continue under Charlie’s experienced eye and the external shell of the building is already on schedule to be completed within the next three weeks. Next, the multi-story van park which defines the architectural fingerprint of these Amazon ‘new style’ sites will go up at a similar rate to the south of the warehouse/depot, on the right in this image.

After that, work should be relatively quiet from the outside for the rest of the year. Inside the building and away from the gaze of the outside world, the automated IT-driven logistics systems and warehouse components which will ‘staff’ the operation will be installed and rigorously tested, ready to start live pilot operations after the Black Friday, Christmas and New Year peaks have been covered by other established local sites. The last of those smaller sites, Fareham, will then close as the New Lane site ramps up to full production levels.

One potential benefit to the neighbourhood is that CityFibre are now digging up the New Lane/Eastern Road junction and bringing full-fibre broadband to the area, no doubt prioritising the lane in order to provide for Amazon’s requirement for network availability, reliability and scalability. This raises an interesting question about the ability of the local electricity supply network to ramp up to service consumption as operations at the site evolve. In addition to the electricity consumed within the warehouse and depot, the eventual aim of having almost 900 vehicle charging points operating, means that the site’s electricity bill could be as eye-watering as the evident construction cost of the van deck itself.

As an interesting aside, a recent article in The Times reported that developers may be prevented from starting projects in west London until 2035 because the electricity grid has run out of capacity to power new homes.


Job opportunities at 32 New Lane

Havant Borough Council’s leadership team, despite being presumably tied-down by their own Amazon non-disclosure agreement, have made much mileage in public statements about the number and quality of employment opportunities that the Amazon operation will bring to the town, despite the complete absence of any detail in the original planning application.

When the Amazon New Lane warehouse/depot and distribution operation starts up in late January 2023, the company’s operation in Fareham will close, less than seven years after it opened, with some staff relocating to Havant. An Amazon site in Southampton is already closing, again with management staff being offered relocation to Havant. Since Amazon typically promotes from within their own workforce, the likelihood is that any local management-level posts will be filled by existing, relocated staff (as implied in the original planning application).

Local Havant jobseekers will have a few options available:

Far from this being secure employment though, drivers will need to weigh up whether what might seem to be a good rate for the job is worth the high personal cost of the fuel needed since Amazon Flex drivers pay for their own fuel. They also need to consider whether they’ll actually be assigned work on any particular day. In order to ensure that they can meet the aggressive delivery promises that customers now demand, Amazon will need to have many more drivers registered on the Amazon Flex app than delivery loads (‘blocks’) available. Simply signing up on the app will give no guarantee that there is any work available on any particular day. This is neither sustainable nor secure employment.


Coming next, Amazon Bognor

Subject to a delayed planning decision, work is now poised to start at the next new Amazon site, just along the coast at Oldlands Farm at Bersted, near Bognor. With 512 van spaces and 6 HGV bays, the Bognor operation will be considerably smaller than Havant, which still remains the largest of these ‘new-style’ Amazon distribution centres that we’ve uncovered across the UK to date.

The Bognor planning application hasn’t really attracted the attention of the public for reasons which might appear obvious from the following image. Arun District Council planners, no doubt wrestling with similar Amazon non-disclosure agreements, actually had the good sense to accept that it could potentially be located at a viable site on the edge of town, away from residential areas and alongside the Strategic Road Network on the A259.

Arun District Council – unlike Havant Borough Council – engaged with National Highways as a statutory consultee. As a result, the Vectos (remember them?) traffic numbers accompanying the Amazon Bognor planning application have been crawled over by experts. At the time of writing, the planning decision is still pended on Vectos convincing National Highways that the figures are sound.

If you regularly travel along the A27 round Chichester and sometimes hit the traffic queues at the Bognor Road / Quarry Lane roundabout, bear in mind that when the Amazon Bognor operation starts, there’ll be a lot more traffic using the A259 exit.


HBC ‘validation’ of incoming planning applications

A couple of questions that need to be answered are:

  1. How did the original planning application, APP/20/00200, get validated as being a viable development for 32 New Lane?
  2. Who within HBC knew the identity of the ‘intended occupier’ and when?

Cllr. Tim Pike has never made any secret of his meetings with ‘the intended occupier’ and it’s a reasonable assumption that the HBC cabinet and executive management team will also have been signatories to a non-disclosure agreement naming Amazon.

Within HBC Planning Services, the individual responsible for validating the incoming application would have had a ‘need to know’ the identity of the occupier in order to properly validate the incoming application.   An application for a traffic-generating operation such as a ‘last mile distribution centre’, should have rung immediate alarm bells at a highway-constrained site like ’32 New Lane’.  The absence of any employment data on the application form and the clear anomalies in the traffic data that accompanied it should have raised the volume of those alarms and caused Planning Services, if they did not already know, to probe further.

The general public highlighted these concerns in over three hundred objections to the first planning application when it was published for public comment.  The scale and nature of those objections should have caused Planning Services to belatedly take stock. 

In fairness, they may actually have done so since the conditions placed on the final approval decision contained appropriate and carefully drafted conditions which attempted to regain some control over the generation and future growth of traffic associated with the site.

The result of this was, however, inevitable. The conditions made the decision ‘commercially unacceptable’ to Amazon, as Natalie Fellows pointed out in the Planning Statement submitted with the subsequent planning application.  At this point, Havant Borough Council no doubt directed Planning Services to roll over and recommend approval, fearing the inevitable financial backlash from a developer’s appeal.  The fact that the ‘intended occupant’ would have been clearly known to the executive leadership would have rung the loudest of the bells.  No local authority is ever going to pick a fight with Amazon’s lawyers!

The fact that the original application passed HBC Planning Services and HCC Highways validation as ‘appropriate for the 32 New Lane site’ leaves serious questions, particularly since we understand that Amazon’s preferred site was at Dunsbury Park, the site now ‘locked’ and reserved for future Solent Freeport use. 

Unlike 32 New Lane, locating the business at Dunsbury Park would have been welcomed by the town and would, perhaps ironically, have proved more commercially acceptable to Amazon.


Why did the identity of the ‘intended occupier’ matter?

Amazon are pursuing a policy of using non-disclosure agreements to frustrate local planning authorities, disrupt local communities and confound retail and logistics competitors throughout the United Kingdom. While this is valid for the maintenance of competitive advantage, it poses serious issues for the local authority planning process, which needs to ensure that documents provided by applicants who use NDA’s to maintain anonymity accurately reflect the true nature of the business that they intend to carry out.

At both a local and a national level, the real-time impact of Amazon’s loading on the local and strategic road networks should be of paramount importance to the authorities, and in particular National Highways. Havant and Bognor are by no means isolated cases as we’ve pointed out before, Amazon’s strategy is UK-wide.

We have no way of knowing how far down the HBC staff organisation the NDA would have reached, but the Planning Services Case Officer and his opposite number at Hampshire County Council Highways should have had access to the knowledge on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. If not, then the question which needs to be asked is this: How can a planning application for such an operation be validated for a sensitive town centre site, without reference to the business operational model of the intended occupier?

In the global ‘last mile distribution’ sector, Amazon is the clear market leader and the acknowledged ‘game-changer’. This was never going to be ‘just another ordinary last mile distribution centre’ and HBC should have realised the ramifications of placing such a disruptive business operation in the residential heart of the town, within half a mile of three junior schools and a hospital. At the very least, National Highways (formerly Highways England) should have been consulted given the impact that 95% of the generated traffic will have on the strategic road network.


Traffic generation at 32 New Lane

These new-style Amazon warehouse/depots, distributed across the UK through a growing network of existing sites, new builds and anonymous planning applications, support the relentless expansion of the Amazon sales offer into fresh groceries and same day delivery. They will hold stock, tailored to the profile of the local population, for those items which the company predicts and generates demand that it can satisfy ‘within the hour’. When complete, this distribution network will have the built-in resilience and redundancy necessary to cover technical failure or workforce availability at any particular site.

These depots are nothing less than massive ‘dark supermarkets’ against which local traditional supermarkets will struggle to compete. Even Morrisons, the supermarket chain currently linked to Amazon’s pilot Fresh offering, will find itself struggling once its current agreement with Amazon ends.

Predicting the type, volume, frequency and growth rate of the traffic from these sites is a dark art and the data attributed to ‘the intended occupier’ in planning applications to local authorities has little or no credibility. Remember though, the 32 New Lane depot is the largest its type that we’ve found so far across the UK so if there’s one thing we can believe from the Transport Assessment, it’s that 95% of its traffic will be heading out of town.

It appears that Amazon has provided a set of standard text clauses together with an apparently credible set of ‘trip generation’ data as a model from which to build the transport assessments which accompany its developers’ planning applications. This has been observed in the documentation for several of these UK wide planning applications, each of which exhibit the ‘new style’ architectural footprint, having a large depot building in conjunction with a multi-storey van park. In each of these cases, the planning applications have been for an anonymous ‘intended occupier’ whose identity has only been revealed following planning approval, and then often only after construction has begun.

The standard model enables developers to tailor the predicted site traffic data to ‘prove’ that there will be no unsatisfactory impact during the two single hours of the day that Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) care about, the morning and afternoon peak hours. The LPAs appear to look no further than these two peak hours, ignoring the fact that these Amazon sites all have operational schedules covering ‘3 shift’ working, 24 hours per day and 7 days a week.

Take the three examples shown below. They happen to be from two different transport consultants, but it’s worth comparing the texts and the data supplied. To dive into the detail, click each image to open the documents.

Stert Road Poole
32 New Lane, Havant – See also Appendix F – pp 10-11

Oldlands Farm, Bognor Regis

For Poole – the earliest document – and for Havant, the documents clearly refer to a three shift 24/7 operation, which in Havant’s case very specifically states midnight as a shift handover time. Neither document, however, shows any staff vehicle trips associated with the midnight shift handover in the 24 hour traffic data shown.

By time that the Bognor planning application was submitted to Arun District Council, the approach had clearly been tuned to remove any mention of the 24/7 shift operation and to exclude a 24 hour daily traffic profile. The only traffic data provided in the Bognor document is that needed to satisfy the two defined peak hours of the day.

Closer examination of the three document examples given above also shows an uncanny similarity between equivalent passages of text, reinforcing the suggestion that a common source of ‘boilerplate’ test has been used in each.


How long will Amazon be a New Lane tenant?

The large Pfizer cold storage warehouse recently demolished was constructed on the 32 New Lane site in 2011. Just five years later, it was already scheduled for the chop and within a decade the site was sold on and cleared. So will Amazon’s new depot last as long as its predecessor at the site? That’s an interesting question and one that that we wouldn’t put money on.

Spending priorities will change as the impacts of climate change, the disruption of global supply chains and the recession start to bite. While Amazon currently keeps its costs down by outsourcing delivery to drivers who pay their own fuel bills and work under zero-hours, gig-economy terms, the end customer will eventually have to pay. The days are numbered for ‘free delivery for orders over £20’ and the nature and cost of Prime subscriptions will change. As belts tighten and customers re-evaluate the costs of their soon-to-be-luxury streaming services, the future is unpredictable.

The biggest factor influencing long term operation at the site is likely to be its constrained location. Amazon may have succeeded in gaining control over the monitoring of traffic generated by its operation at the 32 New Lane site but there’s absolutely nothing that the company can do about the constraints of the local road network that will throttle its growth.

Traffic, as we’ve said from the very beginning, was always going to be the killer factor. The decision to locate Amazon at 32 New Lane rather than Dunsbury Park could prove an expensive one.

It’s worth noting that Amazon no longer buy these land assets in the UK, preferring the safer option of fixed-term leases over, say, fifteen years. The breakage terms in those leases would make quite interesting reading with the Amazon operational model in a constant state of evolution and its lawyers, no doubt, on a pay grade well above those of most of its landlords.


To view the archive of HCS posts on the Amazon 32 New Lane planning application – click here.

[Updated – 15/8 – Added sections 7 & 8 and other minor changes]