DEBATE: Will EDS retail park boost trade or kill Leighton town centre?

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A second scheme to bring a retail park to Leighton Buzzard was approved by Central Beds Council on Wednesday.

Councillors on the development management committee voted through an application from EDS Holdings for the Camden site, off Grovebury Road, after earlier backing a retail park from Claymore for Grovebury Road.

On the Camden site there are currently warehouses and commercial/industrial buildings in poor condition providing about 10 jobs, whereas EDS says its proposal will create 70.

EDS’s outline application brings six non-food retail units totalling 6,227sq metres, and five trade counter/motorist centre units totalling 1,121sq metres.

The application, which includes 324 parking spaces, states that the latter units would be “likely to accommodate” clients such as Screwfix, Tile Giant, Plumb Center, car mechanics, tyre fitters and associated workshops.

The town council opposed the EDS proposal and feared the Land South of High Street development would be put in jeopardy by the retail park.

Town councillor Clive Palmer told the meeting the town council objected due to the significant retail impact, claiming visitors to the EDS retail park would be very unlikely to go to the town centre too.

He said: “It will seriously prejudice the economic vitality of the town centre as well as the Land South of the High Street development.”

He said coupled with the Claymore retail park approval there would be a glut of non-food retail units. “It is a step too far,” he said.

Cllr Palmer also pointed to CBC’s consultants GVA’s report on Land South of High Street which said the retail parks were a threat to the town centre.

If the plan was to be supported Cllr Palmer called for a ‘bulky goods retailer only’ restriction for the site.

The council also felt the loss of employment land was unacceptable and he asked “what is the evidence of the site being unwanted?”

Campaigner Victoria Harvey argued the employment land should be safeguarded, particular with the A5-M1 link about to open which would encourage investment in the area.

She pointed out that a retail park plan from Barwood next to the Claymore site was turned down in 2013 due to the loss of employment land and the “unacceptable diversion of trade from Leighton Buzzard town centre”.

She said it was “extremely naive” to expect retail park shoppers to use the town centre too.

She said the Claymore site put the town centre under “severe risk”.

She said: “To have another retail park would push it over the edge.

“The town is at a knife edge. Grovebury Road is incredibly congested”.

A CBC planning officer stated that there would be some retail impact and overlap but not enough to warrant refusal of the scheme.

Andrew Astin, from Indigo Planning on behalf of EDS, said there was identified capacity for new non-food floorspace in Leighton and the town centre could not accommodate it all.

He said there was a significant leakage of non-food expenditure to other towns. He said Land South of High Street and at Bridge Meadow was not suitable for their needs and that CBC officers agreed with this assessment.

He added: “Our proposal alone, and combined with the Grovebury Road retail park will not have a significant adverse impact on the town centre.

“We note the concerns of the Market Traders Association and the town council, however the proposals will not directly compete with market stalls or small businesses as the majority of trade will be from similar large non-food stores beyond the town, including Milton Keynes.”

He said EDS would accept a condition that the units would be a munimum of 850sq metres to ensure they weren’t occupied by similar retailers to the town centre.

Town and CBC Councillor Amanda Dodwell said the EDS park would offer more choice and claw back trade lost to Aylesbury or Milton Keynes.

She said: “It will complement the offering available in the town.

“This it within walking distance of the town centre and I hope shoppers will see this as an extension of the High Street.

“Rather than seeing this as a threat it needs to be seen opportunity rather than a threat.

“If our town doesn’t move with the times we will see our town centre cease to be viable.”

She added that the argument of a rise in traffic was “spurious” and said this would be a positive sign that the park had attracted shoppers into town.

She believed that most traffic would access it from the southern bypass.

She asked that the developers could be asked to protect the views and open up access to Tiddenfoot Water Meadows, although a CBC planning officer said this was an unreasonable condition to request.

Cllr Tom Nicols said Grovebury Road was already severely congested and traffic was “dire” and he wouldn’t support a further retail development on the site.

He said: “I would be concerned if the industry in Leighton Buzzard can’t get its traffic in and out to service its own industry then it will move away.”

Councillor Nigel Young said he was swayed by the jobs it would bring.

He said it was an employment site in an “awful” state that had discouraged industry from moving in.

He said he would want to see significant improvements to the pedestrian access from the town centre and a travel plan to encourage pedestrians to journey from the park to the town centre.

He added that the White Lion Retail Park had brought a positive impact to Dunstable and this scheme could do the same for Leighton.

He said that of 43,000 residents in Leighton-Linslade, there had been just six letters of objection. “That’s not really a groundswell of objection,” he said.

Noting the concerns of market traders, he said: “Dunstable market is on its knees and I often wonder if that’s not to do with Poundworld and Poundland. It’s a changing world sadly.”

CBC councillors backed their planning officers’ recommendation to support the retail park.

They voted 9-3, with one abstention.

The EDS scheme will still have to be given the all-clear by the Secretary of State due to the out of town location. CBC will also need to approve the finer details of the development when EDS submits a reserved matters application.

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