Former St Helens Labour councillor says she regrets voting for Florida Farm development

CounGill Neal
CounGill Neal

A former Labour councillor has admitted she regrets voting in favour of the Florida Farm development.

Controversial plans to create two massive warehouses on green belt land in Haydock were approved by St Helens Council’s planning committee in 2017.

At the time, Bericote Properties said the development would deliver 2,500 jobs but serious question marks have been raised over this figure after Amazon announced it was creating an initial 250 jobs at the first warehouse.

Coun Gill Neal, ward councillor for Windle, was on the planning committee as a member of the St Helens Labour group and voted in favour of the plans.

In a lengthy Facebook post, Coun Neal said the current jobs outlook for the site makes her feel “sick to the stomach”.

However, Coun Neal, who quit the Labour Party earlier this month, defended her voting record, saying she generally votes “for the greater good”.

Coun Neal said all of the decisions she has made since being elected have been reached after “carefully considering all of the information presented at the time” and after “weighing up all sides of the argument”.

Reflecting on Florida Farm, Coun Neal said: “Do I regret the decision I made? Yes.

“And I offered a heartfelt apology to the residents who attended the Canmoor planning committee, because when I saw the size and scale of those warehouses in that location, I knew it was the wrong decision.

“Those warehouses decimate the environment and surroundings, and the fact that 1/10 of the jobs promised is all that has come forward makes me sick to the stomach.”

In July, plans to build four warehouses on green belt in Haydock were rejected on the grounds it did not meet the special circumstances required for such a development.

Coun Martin Bond, cabinet member for finance, had accused developers of targeting “cheap” green belt land in order to make “big profits”.

Councillors also cast doubt over the projected job figures from the applicant, Canmoor Developments.

Canmoor said the employment site will deliver around 124 jobs over two years, rising to 437 following completion of the scheme.

Coun Neal reflected on her part in passing the Florida Farm application at the meeting, and proposed a motion to reject Canmoor’s plans, which was supported by the majority of the planning committee.

“I went into the planning committee meeting for Canmoor with an open mind as I always do,” Coun Neal said.

“I considered the residents who spoke of their despair at more warehouses and the additional traffic, Coun Bond spoke about the green belt being easy pickings and reiterated the highways plan is not robust in his opinion and I weighed up the request was for a different type of space than that which has already been built.

“Based on those factors my decision is that we can give green belt if it meets very special circumstances but we are 2,250 jobs shy at the moment based on what has been built, so until all those jobs come forward for what is already there – there aren’t any very special circumstances.”

Coun Neal concluded that, if given the opportunity to vote again, she would not vote in favour of the Florida Farm development.

Her candid comments come just weeks after a bitter fallout during the Labour selection process for the 2020 local elections saw her quit the party to become an independent.

Coun Neal had been selected to stand in the Town Centre ward next May – ahead of sitting cabinet member Lynn Clarke.

This was after Coun Neal withdrew from the selection process for her current ward, Windle.

Coun Neal’s husband, Simon Neal, was also selected to stand in Parr, ahead of former deputy council leader Andy Bowden.

But earlier this month, Coun Neal accused members of the St Helens Labour group of leaking stories to the press that “maligned” the Neal family.

She subsequently quit the party and said Mr Neal would also decline the invitation to stand as the Labour candidate in Parr.

Coun Neal said she would not be standing for re-election next May but has since performed a U-turn and will now stand as an independent in Windle.

In a Facebook post, she said: “I stood for election because I wanted to make a difference, and I love the people I represent enough to want to continue.

“Labour might not want me anymore but Windle if you do – vote independent in the May elections.”