A new warehouse, described as “oppressive” and “huge”, is at the centre of a planning row. Why is it so controversial and what is it like living in its shadow?
“It’s spoilt our estate; it’s spoilt our way of living. It’s miserable.”
Jenny Watson lives in a row of bungalows in Bessemer Court on Milton Keynes’ Blakelands estate.
Largely occupied by retirees, the roads are clean and well-kept. A nature reserve and lake are a five-minute stroll away.
For the 10 years she has lived there, Jenny’s home has backed on to a warehouse, but she says previous neighbours John Lewis were “absolutely brilliant”.
Other residents said they barely knew the retailer was there.
But John Lewis has gone, its Yeomans Drive warehouse replaced by a new facility, built by developer GUPI 6.
From the front, it is much like many others clustered close to access points to the M1 motorway.
But from Bessemer Court, the controversy is clear. It towers over those unassuming bungalows.
Bigger by 3,000 sq m (32,291 sq ft) than its predecessor, and taller by at least 6.5m (21ft), it is 11m (36ft) closer to the nearest bungalow.
Jenny, who lives with partner Russ Savage, calls it “an absolutely huge, horrible nightmare”.
“We are not going to get any light into the garden through winter,” she says.
“I love gardening. That has hit me more than anything.
“Everything we want for a happy life is against us with this building. It’s very depressing. You can’t get away from it. You feel suffocated.”
The couple were not planning to leave their home and are even having new heating installed.
“I’m in my 70s,” says Jenny. “I don’t want to be finding somewhere else to live.”
The 18m-high (59ft) warehouse was granted planning permission by Milton Keynes Council’s development control committee in May 2017.
Following an internal audit in February 2019, the council asked external planning expert, Marc Dorfman, to review the decision.
He started work that July. It was hoped his report would be ready in 20 working days.
More than a year later, there is no sign of it.
Yvonne Davies has lived in nearby Telford Way for 26 years.
“It’s a lovely area,” she says. “All the neighbours know each other. It’s a bit like being on holiday because you walk down the street and there’s always somebody to talk to.”
She wishes it was as easy to talk to MK Council.
According to an internal council document, after assessing the application in March 2017, senior planning officer Jeremy Lee wanted to refuse it.
Days later, an agent for the developers emailed his manager and the council’s chief planner, referring to “frustrations and concerns” with Mr Lee’s handling of the application.
The following day Mr Lee’s manager responded, saying the case had been “re-allocated to an officer who can dedicate the necessary time to the application”.
Yvonne is mystified. “The council can’t give us decent answers. What changed?
“Suddenly we are living in the middle of an industrial estate.
“They’ve taken away people’s quality of life and ruined a beautiful lake by plopping a great big tin shed on the side of it.”
Yvonne and Jenny’s fears go beyond the warehouse’s size.
“It’s empty. Nobody has been in it,” Jenny says.
When someone does move in, she fears it will be open 24/7, bringing “constant noise”.
A restriction currently limits its opening hours, but the developer is appealing and residents are nervous.
“While empty it is a horrible eyesore, but if it ever came into use…” says Yvonne, her voice trailing off.
With Mr Lee moved aside, the application was passed to another officer, Samantha Taylor.
At more than 20,000 sq m (215,000 sq ft), this application is many times the 1,000 sq m (10,763 sq ft) threshold for a major development.
It would have been a big case for an experienced planning officer, but according to LinkedIn, Ms Taylor had only graduated, albeit with a Masters in spatial planning, in 2015.
She joined the council having worked in the private sector for about a year and a half.
In March 2017, she emailed the developer’s agent saying she was reviewing the application and would soon be able to confirm what the officer recommendation would be.
By the time the application reached the planning committee, she had recommended its approval.
Two MK Council sources have since told the BBC Ms Taylor wanted to reject it.
She has not responded to requests for comment.
When councillors eventually voted to approve the warehouse, it was with 23 conditions attached
By the time the decision notice was finalised, it listed just 10.
Those missing included conditions requiring a noise barrier be built and the retention of trees and hedges.
Residents only realised the conditions were missing when trees were cut down.
Senior council officers say they only became aware of the missing conditions months after the decision notice went out in January 2018.
An internal audit began, but before its completion, Ms Taylor had left the council.
Five days after she finished work on 9 November 2018, her manager wrote in an email that Ms Taylor had “unhelpfully deleted all of her emails in all folders and wiped her h:drive”.
The manager questioned whether what “she has done is a breach of conduct”.
From their pretty garden in Telford Way, Richard and Davina Scholefield cannot see the warehouse.
From upstairs, however, its bulk is all too apparent.
“We said ‘Please could you put something more in keeping with the surroundings there?’,” Davina says.
Having formerly worked as a council officer in nearby Luton, she cannot understand the planning processes undertaken in Milton Keynes.
Such controversies are not confined to Blakelands.
In September 2018 the council’s chief planner, Brett Leahy, drew up a list of other times when, after councillors had considered planning applications, errors were made in paperwork.
His list includes 21 other applications made between 2015 and 2017. Several are said to have had conditions missing.
For more than a year, councillors were unaware of the list’s existence. It was finally emailed to a small group of them in July.
In a statement, lawyers for developer GUPI 6 said the council had been aware the new warehouse was replacing an existing building which “was not subject to any restrictions on its hours of operation”.
It said evidence had been submitted showing “residents’ concerns about possible noise impacts were not justified”.
The statement said further evidence has been submitted to an ongoing appeal showing the restriction on the hours of operation “can be lifted without unacceptable impacts on neighbouring homes”.
In relation to the planning process, the statement said it was against a backdrop of “unjustified delays” which “created prolonged uncertainty for residents as well as impacting on the developer, that GUPI 6 Limited expressed their concern and frustration”.
Regarding the missing conditions, it said: “The error was pointed out to the council by GUPI, who diligently continued to comply with those conditions as if they had been attached to the planning permission.”
It also said that is has since reapplied for, and been granted, planning permission with the missing conditions reinstated.
A Milton Keynes Council spokesman said: “An independent review of this planning decision is under way and the council will consider and respond to the recommendations made following the completion of the review.”