Thursday, 14 February 2013

Thetford Supermarket battle - Round 2


It didn't take too long for the Thetford supermarket battle to go back into the ring and the matter was duly debated, and decided upon at Mondays meeting of the Breckland Council Planning Committee (11th Feb 2013).

You may recall that I previously wrote at length about my concerns regarding both proposals and by the way in which the Planning Committee seemed so dysfunctional in their handling of the matter.

This time around, I did not need to attend as a Substitute member of the Planning Committee as Sylvia Armes was attending, but I did register to speak as a Ward Member as the Asda store would have been built in the ward that I represent. I therefore spent a lot of time consulting with people about their thoughts in relation to a further supermarket. This is not a clear cut issue, so I wanted to gauge as much public opinion as possible. Most, that is, greater than 80% (if not more) of everybody that I spoke to, including comments received through Facebook, were in favour of a further supermarket, and in particular, in favour of the Asda proposal for the London Road site (perhaps my Facebook 'friends' simply prefer Asda over Morrisons? so it is perhaps not scientific, or representative, but indicative?).

Now, I am no fan of Asda - like all major supermarkets I consider their treatment of suppliers to be unethical and indeed unsustainable (think recent horse-meat scandal?) and their anti-union approach and terms & conditions available to staff is of grave concern - (see this report by GMB and War on Want re: Walmart - Asda's parent company for info - but, it's a supermarket, so we know all this. I would just point out that I would not be so hypocritical not to acknowledge that I do on the odd occasion shop in Asda, and indeed Morrisons; there is an Asda store in Bury St Edmunds so sometimes myself and friends will stop off there and similarly there is a Morrisons in Diss and if we happen to be nearby we will stop there.

Morrisons proposal for Thetford Enterprise Park
Regarding the two applications; The Morrisons (i.e. Breckland Council / Pigeon / Crown Estate backed proposal) for the Thetford Enterprise Park just off the Mundford Road had changed little, if at all from the first time around. The fundamental flaw with the proposal was/is that it is going on land designated for the Thetford Enterprise Park (TEP), i.e. somewhere where as a town we can take advantage of our proximity to Cambridge, Norwich, Hethel, Snetterton and that particular sites closeness to the dual carriageway and encourage some high tech businesses to locate here, perhaps engineering jobs or the like. The supermarket would consume at least 22% of the entire site - also, consider this - once the supermarket goes on there, how much easier would it be for other retailers to be located there? How about a TK Maxx popping up, or a PC World next door? I am told that the vast majority of the Crown Estates portfolio across the UK is 'out of town retail'. This supermarket itself would also have a negative effect on the High Street. 'NLP' - consultants to Breckland Council on these matters, said that the supermarkets would result in 20% less expenditure in the High Street. Note: this also includes however a reduction in expenditure for Iceland & Aldi in terms of less money spent on food here as they are classed as 'Town Centre'. The site is completely out on a limb from anywhere else. It will not be easily accessible by foot - either by employees or customers, very difficult to access by bicycle, and currently no bus service accessing anywhere nearby. Linkages to the High Street would be limited - i.e. when people go to do their shopping at the supermarket, it would be great to encourage them to also pop into the High Street etc. but this would be unlikely at this site.
Strangely, I received no paperwork from Pigeon/Crown Estate encouraging me to support their application the second time around. And I cannot remember receiving anything the first time around although Pigeon and the Crown did attend a Town Council meeting to brief Councillors, which I attended.

The argument that the supermarket will service the new housing to the north is also deeply flawed. The growth to the North is to be spread over the next 15 20 years, perhaps even longer it will depend on economic conditions and demand. Much may never happen it is a blueprint for growth I am told repeatedly. The initial phases of development will be almost immediately next door to Tesco, so their needs would have been catered for adequately I would have thought? Interestingly, Tescos floor space currently would have equalled Sainsburys, Lidl and Asda combined if Asda had been approved and Lidl was developed.

On the positive side - the primary argument in support of the site being agreed to is that in theory at least, it has the potential to unlock the enterprise site for development, that is, the supermarket will lead the way in terms of putting in initial infrastructure to make the rest of the site more viable, and appealing to prospective developers. Infrastructure including a new roadway partly into the site and connecting electricity from the Wyatt Way sub-station to the Thetford Enterprise Park which is obviously a considerable cost.

Asda proposal for Tulip site, London Road

Regarding the Asda proposal (i.e. Location 3 Properties), they too wanted to build on land designated for industry / manufacturing - although the Tulip site is currently redundant, and a bit of an eyesore on the main road through town - so a brownfield site would have been regenerated by the plans. As the Planning Officers said on Monday, its a judgement call by Councillors, but arguably the Enterprise Park is of much greater strategic value to the town than the land at the Tulip site and there is a plentiful supply of land available for the type of manufacturing / industry at the Tulip site.

The Asda store would have been within walking distance for practically everybody living on the Barnham Cross Estate, and Redcastle Furze Estate i.e. 5,000 people and the London Road is already an established footway along the town from Sainsburys right through to the other side with people already walking up and down the road - easy access by foot for potential employees and shoppers. The London Road is already part of an existing bus route - and could have been developed further to include more frequent trips into the Town Centre, for example.

Whereas the Morrisons proposal would have contributed money to improve the Enterprise Park site as part of their Section 106 contributions, the Asda proposal would have set aside £200,000 to support high street businesses that is, by helping to subsidise rents and rates, provide business start-up grants etc. and Brecklands own Economic Development Team could have advised on this, as could the Town Council and Sort It. They would have also set aside £100,000 for other Town Centre improvements, e.g. improving the appearance of the Town Centre through enhancements - all welcomed expenditure to go someway towards mitigating the affects of the supermarket (the Asda proposal, like the Morrisons one, would have resulted in 20% less expenditure in the High Street).

Further to this, the backers of Asda had pledged to commit to a local recruitment plan - i.e. all 250+ jobs would have been guaranteed for local people, with many coming from the Saxon Ward (i.e. the area that I represent on the Council). Further, Asda had pledged to commit to selling no white goods at the site, which was a major plus, and good news for some high street retailers at least - e.g. Hughes Electrical I'm sure, and Cobra Domestic Appliances). The Morrisons site measured 3,436 sq feet as well, whereas Asda was a bit smaller at 3,149 sq feet. The Morrisons site wanted a 75% to 25% split between food and non-food sales and Asda wanted 65% to 35% so the TEP site proposal was better in this regard, although given it was larger, this would have been cancelled out.

Rather crucially for me at least, if Asda went ahead, they would not have been able to expand as the site is penned in all around so you know what you are getting in a way - the Morrisons site however, being greenfield, could of course expand in due course - and it is already going to be bigger than Asda would have been.

One of my concerns last time regarding this proposal was that the 2 Sisters Food group wanted to expand onto the proposed site and create further jobs - see my speech last time for info on this -

However, Asda had amended their plans to accommodate the opportunity for 2 Sisters Food Group to expand and Asda would have paid for some of the infrastructure to enable this to occur. The exact details of this I am unsure about and don't fully understand, but it seemed like welcomed news to me.

I had previously raised concerns about traffic issues, particularly along the London Road and indeed several committee members referred to this and I am sure that it factored against Asda. However, they pledged to fund a new traffic light system at the Caxton Way / London Road junction that was welcomed by businesses based in this location.

So what happened? Naturally, the Committee voted overwhelmingly, something like 10 - 0 to support the Morrisons proposal and dismiss the Asda proposal. Two of those being from two members of the Planning Committee that also represent the Saxon Ward.

The Committees reasoning? Because the Morrisons proposal will unlock the Enterprise Park. The Town must dearly pray that it unlocks it for enterprise, not further retail, or this will really be the end of the High Street.

The Committee did themselves no favours, by appearing to be utterly dysfunctional - as I heard one person outside say "I have never seen such an appalling Planning Committee in my thirty years in the profession across the country". Something for the Breckland Conservative group to ponder giving 10 of the 12 members of the committee are Conservatives!

It was a complete turnaround from the last time the pro sales were considered when neither store was supported although members raised just a few points in opposition. This time a succession of Conservative Councillors raised criticism of Asda and spoke in favour of the site - it appeared to me as if they were justifying a decision that had already been made. I'm no expert, but aren't Planning Committee supposed to have an open mind? Judge what's in front of them - to scrutinise proposals, probe representatives. Representatives whom on Monday were barely allowed to speak, or even reply to misleading statements or answer questions that one must assume were merely rhetorical.

Addressing some of the direct points that have been raised with me:

"How can you support Asda, when Thetford Town Council voted to not support either location?" I attended the Breckland Planning meeting as a Breckland Councillor and as Ward rep for Saxon Ward. Susan Glossop attended as the Acting Town Clerk to give the collective view of Thetford Town Council. The primary Town Council objection being the loss of manufacturing / employment land with both proposals - a point I agree with. However, Councillors are not limited to merely reiterating the collective view of the Council they sit on, they have a duty to their individual ward and electorate - imagine if I had to trot out the Breckland line all the time? I'd rather think for myself. I do recognise that there is somewhat a difficulty for those people that sit on more than one Council, as I do (and 7 other Town Councillors who are also District Councillors - 2 of which not only supported the Morrisons proposal, but voted for it, knowing the Town Council objected to it).


"Why did you change from not supporting either application, to supporting Asda?" Primarily, as I hope the text above explains, the Asda proposal changed and improved - they had taken on board many of the concerns that I personally raised initially and it was a much better proposal than the Morrisons one, and there was a very real likelihood that one application would be successful, so I wanted to make clear that I preferred the Asda one over Morrisons as it would have been far better for the town. I'd much rather see people use the supermarkets that we have and see massive investment occur in the Town Centre. I'd much rather see the Enterprise Park used for its intended purpose and a manufacturing business take up the Tulip site, but thats not the Utopia we live in and as Councillors we have to weigh things up and ultimately make a decision, knowing full well that we will never please everybody.


"How is it right that a Conservative controlled Breckland Planning Committee decide upon a Planning Application led by an organisation, i.e. Pigeon, that is run by somebody so immersed in the local Conservative Party, i.e. William Van Cutsem?" I have no idea but I am sure to many it looks very odd.

Particularly ironic of course given that a couple of people accused me of bias and not declaring a pecuniary interest in relation to "Asda giving Sort It £200k" - errrm no they are not, they were saying that they would ask Sort It, as a collective body, to advise on where a £200k fund could be best utilised to support the Town Centre, in the same way that they were asking the Town Council to do this, and Breckland. To insinuate, no actually, to say that my support for Asda was because of this is somewhat insulting - to say that I would sway my thoughts regarding what is best for Thetford in such a regard - I am guided by what I feel is best for the town in which I was born, and love dearly. Can all Councillors say the same?

It is also perhaps noteworthy to acknowledge the additional attendees at Mondays Planning meeting; in the audience, sat next to the people representing Crown/Pigeon/Morrisons was William Nunn, Leader of Breckland Council, Michael Wassell, Deputy Leader, Mark Kiddle-Morris Cabinet Member for Assets perhaps co-incidence, but worthy of note.


Peter Ball said...

As a person moving into the area in the summer I found this most useful. Thanks

Peter Ball said...

it's now ten months since the annoucement. is there any progress worth mentioning? have they even broken ground?