THE campaign to save historic West Waterloo Dock has been given a massive boost - thanks to a damning report from the Information Commissioner.
The Commissioner’s Decision Notice concludes a 13-month saga that began with a simple Freedom of Information (FoI) request to Liverpool City Council (LCC), submitted by residents living in the Kirkdale dockside community.
It has ended with the Commissioner’s findings that “the information provided by the Council did not fall within the scope of the request”. And the Council also gets a double-barrelled rocket for failing to respond to the residents’ legitimate concerns within the timeframe set down in FoI rules.
The first chapter of this extraordinary tale began in December 2018, when multi-millionaire Australian property developer Greg Malouf’s Romal Capital – strongly supported by dock landlords Peel Holdings – submitted Planning Application 18F/3247, which sought to fill in the dock and build tower blocks of hundreds of flats on the reclaimed land.
The dock they chose is unquestionably one of the most historic on the Mersey. It was the site of the original Liverpool Observatory, which did more than any other location in the world to create the accurate chronometers that made international shipping safe. It was also the point of embarkation for hundreds of thousands of people – President John F Kennedy’s great grandad among them – fleeing starvation in Ireland and religious pogroms in Europe to start a new life in America.
But heritage considerations – which led to just about every significant heritage group in the UK and Europe objecting to the plans, along with thousands of horrified citizens – were not the only hurdle the developers faced. There was also the not-so-small matter of Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status.
One of the major reasons why Liverpool received that great honour in 2004 was because of the sequence of water filled docks that survive to the north of the Pier Head, as a lasting monument to the city’s historic significance as “the first port and second city of the former British Empire.”
Meanwhile, another planning application came before the council, seeking to build a new Isle of Man Ferry Terminal at the junction of West Waterloo and Princes Half Tide docks – and most locals were fully supportive of a project that would bring renewed maritime activity back to the area. The fact that this would require a small amount of dock infill seemed a reasonable price to pay for such a regenerative scheme.
But the case officer’s report set local alarm bells ringing with a paragraph on Page 31, Paragraph 7.8, which claimed: “the infill proposed in West Waterloo Dock . . . is less sensitive from a conservation perspective, given infilling has already occurred in the northern end of this dock.”
Local residents were, literally, gobsmacked. The only thing visible at the north end of the dock was a small area of rubble, topsoil and small bushes which had become a mini haven where nesting swans and other sea birds could breed in relative safety. Liverpool HAS seen dock “infill” used over the years. Our world-renowned Three Graces stand on infilled land, as do several housing schemes to the south of the city centre. But the supposed “infill” at the north end of West Waterloo Dock is nothing like any of that. It looks more like fly-tipping.
Surely nobody could have granted permission for the pile of rubbish at the north end of West Waterloo Dock? What would they have been granting permission for? And a well attended meeting of residents confirmed that not a single one of us had ever seen any notification of any such planning application - and several of those residents had lived here for 30 years!
The Save Waterloo Dock Campaign Team takes up the story of what happened next:
When we raised these issues with the council, they referred us to a Special Planning Document regarding the city’s WHS status (Paragraph 4.7.7) which, they advised, “provides the most specific policy guidance on the principle of infilling”. And, to be fair, it seemed pretty clear.
It advises that the ONLY exception to the council’s general opposition to dock infill is “where permission has previously been granted for partial infilling and where circumstances have not changed sufficiently for any similar proposals to be resisted in the future.”
Surely nobody could have granted permission for the pile of rubbish at the north end of West Waterloo Dock? What would they have been granting permission for? And a well attended meeting of residents confirmed that not a single one of us had ever seen any notification of any such planning application – and several of those residents had lived here for 30 years!
That is why the original FoI request was submitted on 26 April 2019. It asked when the infill was carried out, who did it, were local residents advised of the plans in advance and was planning permission sought and granted?
Although the council failed to reply in the statutory timeframe of 20 days, it did respond about a week later, and its answers seemed very confident and comprehensive.
It provided the names of two contractors who had the work done, it insisted residents were advised “in line with statutory protocols”, it stated that the relevant applications were considered by the Council – and LCC sent NINE planning application files as evidence of all the above.
Anyone who has ever read even one planning application in full will agree that they are a nightmare for anyone other than planning professionals. They can often run to hundreds of documents, covering everything from the actual plans to transport and environmental “impact studies” to health and safety regulations and permitted hours of work.
Surely nobody would wade through all of that – nine times over?
But we did. And what we found was literally the precise opposite of what LCC had claimed in their initial FoI response. For a start, four of the applications sent to us did not even involve West Waterloo Dock. And only two of the nine sought to infill part of the dock, as part of the plans submitted in 2006 to extend the Leeds Liverpool Canal. Worse still, one of those two (06F/1421) was withdrawn by the applicant and so was never considered or ruled on by the council.
So that left us with PA: 06F/2292 – which is the ONLY occasion that Liverpool City Council has considered and ruled upon an application which involves infill at West Waterloo Dock. It came before the Planning Committee on 10 October 2006 – and it was REFUSED.
The council’s response had a paragraph near the end saying that anyone who was dissatisfied with its findings could lodge an appeal, and we submitted ours on 12 June, 2019. We were promised a response within 40 working days. When this failed to happen we sent a respectful reminder, and another one, seven days after that. Neither was even acknowledged. so we then sought the help of the Information Commissioner on 15 August 2019.
The IC’s intervention eventually brought a response from LCC which “partially upheld” our complaints. It conceded that, despite what we had been told in the initial Council response, the City Council does not “hold or retain” identification of individual contractors or dates of work. The review then focussed primarily on our original Question 4: “Was planning permission sought and granted for the infill to take place?” In an effort to provide an answer, the LCC Information Team sent details of just TWO planning applications.
Unfortunately, both of them had been included in the original list of nine sent to us several months earlier – the one that was WITHDRAWN before reaching the LCC Planning Committee and the one that was REFUSED by the Council. So we were still no nearer to getting any proper answers, and referred the matter back to the Information Commissioner on 1 October 2019.
The Council assured the Commissioner that its “comprehensive and in-depth examination of all records” would have been likely to retrieve all of the relevant information it held. This had involved a “combination of manual and electronic searches” plus “the personal folders and mailboxes of 39 officers in Planning and Legal Services” plus “all retained hard copy records”. LCC also confirmed that “no further information was identified”.
Most bizarrely of all, LCC advised the Commissioner that “matters related to planning applications” are only retained for 15 years from the date of receipt. But the original list of nine applications sent to us in the council’s first response to our FoI request, included two applications from the year 2000 – which was 19 years earlier.
Referring to applications associated with the Leeds-Liverpool canal extension, LCC told the Commissioner that these “would have been received and determined during or prior to 2004, and information from that time would no longer be held by the Council”.
Whoops! History malfunction here. The extension to the canal actually opened in March 2009 – just 10 years before our FoI request was submitted and well within the 15-year retention rule. And the key planning applications to enable that work to be done were all submitted in 2006 (13 years before our FoI). The clue is there for all to see in the planning application numbers, which all begin with the year when they were submitted – 06F/1421 (withdrawn), 06F/2292 (refused) and 06F/3125 (approved with conditions).
In fact, the conditions applied to that final application are the most dramatic proof of all that LCC was totally opposed to infill at West Waterloo Dock. In granting approval of an application that did NOT seek any dock infill, on 24/11/2006, Condition No 7 specifically stated: “Prior to any site works commencing, a management plan for the removal, transportation and disposal of all inert waste materials resulting from excavations shall be submitted to, and agreed in writing by the local planning authority. And, for the avoidance of doubt, the plans shall include details of vehicle routing to and from licensed disposal sites.”
Not much room for argument there!
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Council told the Commissioner it is “a matter of long term public record that infill has previously occurred within the area of this historic dock.”
But it clearly does NOT meet the test set out in the council’s own policy guidance, that the ONLY exception to the general opposition to dock infill is where “permission has previously been granted for partial infilling.”
The Commissioner’s key finding (Para 36) is that “on the balance of probabilities the Council does not hold any of the requested information.”
So where does all this leave the application to build those tower blocks of flats on historic West Waterloo Dock – and on which a decision was originally expected in April 2019?
A senior council officer told us: “Discussions with the developer and Peel are still ongoing.”
*To keep up to date with our campaign check out our website: savewaterloodock.com
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