Jonathan Schofield discovers car parks without planning permission avoiding business rates

WE’VE found two but there are possibly dozens. The SIP car park on Collier Street, between two railway viaducts in Castlefield, and one under the railway arch at New Wakefield Street in Macintosh Village are illegal, and both are located either in listed properties or in a conservation area.

After a tip off we asked Manchester City Council if these car parks had planning permission. This was their reply: ‘Neither site you've highlighted have any of the following: planning consent, listed building consent or advertisement consent. They are known to us and the two sites are currently being investigated by the planning enforcement team.’

We as a city have potentially lost up to £344,000 - on one car park

So Confidential asked: ‘How long does an investigation last and how long until a decision and possible action? Also, what might be the result in terms of sanction – if it’s a fine, what might be the amount?’

The Council then gave us a lengthier reply: ‘It goes without saying we take breaches of planning very seriously and the investigation started this week (18 April) following a complaint. 

‘The investigation doesn’t have a fixed length – although it is worked through as quickly as possible to find out who is at fault, who owns the land etc... It takes as long as necessary to flush out the key people involved. Usually a few weeks. 

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The SIP car park on Collier Street doesn't have planning permission - neither does its sister site on New Wakefield Street

The council statement continued: ‘The investigation also reviews whether or not the act that doesn’t have permission is causing demonstrable harm. This is particularly pertinent in these cases as the structures around them are listed. So, the investigation will look at whether the use is harmful and whether the advertisements have impacted the fabric of the property at all. 

‘When they realise the compliance team are investigating the site, the company may put in a retrospective planning application, which will go through the planning process and through committee. 

‘However, planning law isn’t about criminalising people, it’s about making sure we have an overview of development to ensure it is appropriate and not detrimental to the built environment. 

‘If we feel there is harm done, we will serve a notice to request the activity stops. They can then appeal if they feel there is no grounds to serve a notice. 

‘It’s very unusual and a very last measure to move to a prosecution via the courts. This could result in a fine (decided by the court) but we, as the Council, don’t have a mechanism to fine people for planning breaches. We could appeal for court costs to be paid for us, but again, unusual for planning issues to get that far.’

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SIP prices on New Wakefield Street

There’s an added problem the Council didn’t mention in this answer. If enterprises such as SIP car parks, in the properties we’ve mentioned, don’t have planning permission, then they can’t be assessed for business rates. In other words, the council can’t collect monies. UK councils are justifiably pleading poverty after the government withdrew billions with its taste for that dreaded nine letter word, austerity. Yet here is a source of revenue that is not being collected.  

This is bad enough with the Castlefield car park example, but that has only been operating for a few months. The New Wakefield Street car park has been operating for at least four years. That is a huge amount of money lost to the city.

Manchester City Council says they do not investigate such planning cases unless there’s a complaint, and the first complaint came last summer. This was ‘followed by an initial investigation that garnered a retrospective planning application for listed building consent and advertisement consent, but not change of use consent.' These can be seen here on the council planning portal (application numbers 122508 and 122760).

It turns out that both the applications were refused and that compliance officers are writing to SIP. Meanwhile, at the point of complaint, the business rates compliance team are investigating separately. 

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Both illegal car parks are located either in listed properties or in a conservation area

Mike Halley, Chairman of Macintosh Village Management Company, raises some strong points critical of this approach to enforcement.

“Surely enforcement must go in hand in hand with planning permission,” he says. “The city sets a dangerous and costly precedent with these examples where enforcement is either ignored, not deployed or simply not up to the job.”

He continues: “When you do not have planning permission but persist for over four years to operate a car park in central Manchester the financial rewards are high. With planning permission, business rates determinations are updated and correctly issued. What is now clear is a grade II listed archway on New Wakefield Street has no planning permission and thus no health and safety measures inside or when cars enter and egress. The correct business rates have not been applied, as a change of planning condition updates these.”

As he sees it the community and city are losing out in many ways. As the premises are unattended there have been numerous examples of anti-social behaviour, for instance, Palace Theatre customers have had cars broken into and wrecked. Needles and other detritus have also been found.

Then Mike Halley comes up with a startling financial comparison.

“An equivalent car park a few streets away contributes £86,000 annually in business rates. If you take the four years that that one single car park in New Wakefield Street has been operating then we as a city have lost something up to £344,000, if the correct business rates had been applied. This is a strange way to play Monopoly or indeed to run a city like Manchester.”

04 24 2019 Sip New Wakefield St 3
How many more lack planning permission? How many more are not paying business rates?

We asked SIP car parks for a comment. SIP stands for Simple Intelligent Parking, maybe it should be SAT, or Simple Avoidance Tactics. The gent on the phone wouldn’t put us through to anybody who dealt with the press or anybody in authority. “It’s not our policy,” he said, “but you can email.” We did. SIP has failed to reply. This is unsurprising perhaps, as they must know they don’t have planning permission and are thus, no doubt, generating an impressive rates-free profit.

The worry is this: if Confidential has found two car parks without planning permission this easily, how many other car parks and how many other properties in the city and across the region have eluded planning permission and thus side-stepped business rates and health and safety?

If Mike Halley’s assessment of a loss of almost £350,000 on one site is anywhere near the mark, then there’s a latent irony here. That money could have been utilised to employ several more planning enforcement officers, these could then actively seek out planning permission abuses. 

The fact that there has only been one complaint about one of our featured car parks is neither here nor there. Most people would assume they were parking in an officially sanctioned site. It would seem the present passive enforcement of planning breaches are doing the local authority and its residents and businesses a massive disservice.