Amazon – The unanswered questions

When a ‘last mile delivery centre’ was first proposed for Pfizer’s former site in New Lane in January 2021, the marketing flyer from the developer gave few hints of the extent to which that description was being stretched.  The location’s constrained access to the UK strategic road network, via the town centre and nearby residential streets, made it a highly unlikely choice for even a medium-sized logistics operation. 

An Amazon HGV attempting to head west along Eastern Road

Havant Borough Council’s decision to approve the development by Amazon at 32 New Lane appears to have resulted from an ill-considered economic development initiative which was never challenged by the cabinet, never openly debated by the council and blindly rubber-stamped by a planning committee oblivious to public concern.  At the end of the day, the decision was naïve and the impacts will be far reaching.

Amazon had been calling the shots right from the start and the local authority appears to have rolled over without a fight, perhaps believing that it was being sold a bargain.  The ‘intended occupier’ used its tried-and-tested approach of blending an ambiguous planning submission with insistence on ‘commercial confidentiality’ to remain hidden behind an expendable shield made up of a novice planning agent, a mathematically-challenged transport consultant and a local property consortium which at times looked rather out of its depth

The only real challenge to the planning application came from the public, increasingly aware from studies of similar planning applications across the UK that the architectural design and much of the text included in the Havant planning submission carried Amazon’s unmistakeable commercial fingerprints.  

So why New Lane? Several sources have confirmed that Amazon’s first preference had been to develop its new Portsmouth DPO1 delivery station at Dunsbury Park, ideally situated for local ‘flex’ drivers and with clear access to the strategic road network.  With the site owned by Portsmouth City Council and the business rates income due to Havant Borough Council, that should have been a win-win for everybody and a long term commercial bet for Amazon.

Instead, it appears that PCC and HBC turned Amazon’s approach down, presumably pinning their hopes for Dunsbury Park on the promise of future business from the Solent Freeport. The New Lane site was then presented to Amazon as a viable fall-back option, one viewed by the local residents and road users as a very long shot indeed.  The constrained New Lane site would offer Amazon little room for the growth in traffic it is likely to generate and despite successfully quashing the traffic conditions put in place by the original planning approval, the company will find that the surrounding road infrastructure and poor access to the strategic road network will eventually throttle its growth.

What will happen then remains to be seen, 32 New Lane is now just another piece of Havant lost to murky overseas ownership.

There are a number of significant differences between the operations which will be carried out from the Amazon DPO1 operation at New Lane and the operation described in the planning submission.

The proposed operation was described as follows:

“The occupier proposes to use the site as a ‘last mile’ distribution centre, where parcels are delivered via small vans to customers in the local area. The occupier is looking to consolidate their operations on one site with a van storage deck which would house the van fleet overnight while the drivers are not out on deliveries as opposed to vans being stored in the local area.”

The traffic data with the planning submission provided ‘evidence’ of a similarly simplistic model showing HGVs arriving primarily overnight with a fleet of vans located overnight on the site, departing each morning and returning each evening on single round trips.

The reality is quite different    

In addition to incoming parcels, the New Lane site will receive and hold local product stock for the Amazon retail businesses to enable the company to meet its increasingly aggressive same-day delivery deadlines for customers.  The site will also maintain stock of around 10,000 dry, wet and fresh grocery items associated with a typical supermarket product range to support the expanding ‘Amazon Fresh’ online business in direct competition with the big four supermarkets and Ocado.  The warehouse acts as a ‘dark supermarket’, enabling rapid delivery from locally held stock to customers across Hampshire and Sussex ‘within the hour’.

Amazon’s agent – Chris Fry, Managing Director of Kingsbridge estates – stated to the planning committee that delivery would be carried out by a ‘wholly owned and branded fleet of vans’, knowing full well that nothing could be further from the truth.  It is well known that Amazon’s ‘last mile’ delivery capability is outsourced to a flexible workforce made up of third-party Amazon ‘Delivery Service Partners’, topped up by individual Amazon ‘Flex’ owner/drivers using their own unbranded private vehicles under zero-hours, gig-economy terms.   

Amazon will also be using the site for receipt of inbound third-party contract loads for the ‘Amazon Shipping’ and Amazon Freight’ businesses, making full use of the otherwise empty HGV traffic heading back into the Amazon Logistics UK network. 

Accurate predictions of traffic generation associated with the site, together with the expected impact on the local street network, are known only to Amazon.  The company’s UK-wide network of delivery stations is still under development, the market is constantly changing and the traffic generated will fluctuate daily as load is continually balanced across the network. The half-baked numbers provided by its traffic consultant for the New Lane operation were simply chosen for comparability with the historical agreed maximum for the previous Pfizer operation at the site and despite the obvious errors and glaring inconsistencies in the data, neither HBC nor HCC ever challenged those numbers.

In the latest Economic Strategy document, Cllr. Tim Pike promised to “[Develop] higher-level skills, especially in new STEM and digital, advanced engineering and low carbon sectors, to ensure local residents, particularly young people, have the opportunity to secure good quality local jobs.”  As recently as November 2022, the incumbent councillor for St Faith’s and HBC economic development lead, who is probably accountable for the council’s decision to bring the Amazon development to New Lane rather than Dunsbury Park, went on record claiming that Amazon would bring 800 to 1000 jobs to Havant. 

The reality is that Cllr. Pike’s economic strategy has sacrificed a site perfectly placed for sustainable, high technology, quality employment in favour of one of the world’s most notorious manipulators of short-term contract and part-time gig-economy workers. 

The outstanding questions

The questions which still need answers could be summarised as “who else knew what, when, and why did they agree to the actions taken?”

Heading south towards the New Lane level crossing

It seems clear that Havant Borough Council’s cabinet were aware of the identity of the intended 32 New Lane occupier before the first planning application was even raised.  It is also unthinkable that HBC Planning Services would not have been aware.  With public understanding of the breadth of operations at the site, the mystery has always been how the council justified the Amazon delivery centre as a valid and viable option for New Lane when more appropriate edge-of-town sites were available?

In consulting with the main internal and external parties at the planning stage, were the full details of Amazon’s intended operation shared?  Were Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Services told that a high intensity, Ocado-like online grocery fulfilment business was intended for the site?  Was HBC’s own Environmental Health consultee made aware of the food storage and food waste implications of the Amazon operation?  Were Hampshire County Council Highways fully briefed that the intended occupier was Amazon and, on the assumption that they were, what evidence can they provide to support their assertion ‘that the [traffic] data is robust’?  Knowing that the occupier was Amazon and aware that 95% of the traffic generated would be heading for the strategic road network, why did the Case Officer not engage with National Highways?  Why did the Case Officer  recommend approval, knowing full well that the Planning Committee were unanimous in their ignorance of the identity of the occupier? How does HBC reconcile the decision of the Planning Committee with the guidance of the constitution that the missing information was ‘reasonably required’?

As well as pulling the wool over the eyes of its own planning committee, Havant Borough Council’s acceptance of Amazon’s demand for anonymity may also have significantly disadvantaged local retail businesses and handed the company an unfair commercial advantage over its major UK online grocery competitors.  Was this a collective decision made by the HBC Cabinet and if so, on what date? If the decision was in response to a non-disclosure agreement requested by Amazon, what was the council’s legal argument for agreement?

You might argue that it’s too late, the horse has already bolted and we should all just forget it and accept that that Amazon have successfully rolled yet another local authority over. HCS and the New Lane residents are, however, unlikely to let this go. During the past two years, we’ve had just two opportunities of three minutes each to ask relevant questions of the council during the planning committee meetings. In reality, just five minutes in total given that the democratic services timekeeper cut this deputee short at the original planning meeting. If that’s local democracy in action, then we believe that Havant deserves better. (The recordings of both planning committee sessions will remain available on the HCS YouTube channel.)

Amazon’s disdain for the local authority planning process is clear.  The company has shown clear contempt for the conditions applied to its original planning approval by failing to set up the Community Liaison Panel (CLP) prior to occupation.  The delay, no doubt, is caused by Amazon’s legal team as they water down this initiative for neighbourhood engagement and test the council’s appetite for enforcement.  

The fundamental objective of the Community Liaison Panel is to ensure the resolution of issues raised by the neighbourhood on activity at the site buildings and traffic generated by the Amazon operations.  That being said, we would not be at all surprised to find Amazon trying to remove ‘traffic’ from the CLP scope, given that they will present traffic matters as ‘the responsibility of the outsourced drivers’ and ‘nothing to do with Amazon’.  

In a further demonstration of its complete disregard for the local authority, the company’s current planning application for site signage is deliberately provocative, the drawings submitted being at odds with the signage already erected at the site gates. 

Oh, and that signage, incidentally, is already in direct conflict with the spirit and the detail of the agreed Operational Management Plan.

Havant Borough Council, like many other local authorities before it, has swallowed Amazon’s bait, hook, line and sinker. 

The question they might like to reflect on, however, is whether a fair minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the decision by the council to site Amazon at New Lane was ‘flawed’. 

Successfully past Fairfield School, turning into Beechworth Road

In case you wondered.

All of the questions raised in this post have been put to the Council. So far, without exception, the response has been a stony silence.