M&S pledge to come to Leighton Buzzard gives food for thought

M&S Foodhall
M&S Foodhall

M&S has confirmed it wants to come to Leighton Buzzard – but first planners will have to agree to relax retailer restrictions on the approved Grovebury Road retail park.

Having eyed up Unit B on the park for an M&S Foodhall, the stumbling block is that the planning permission, first granted in November 2013, forbids the presence of “convenience food retail” in the warehouses.

Claymore retail park for Leighton Buzzard

Claymore retail park for Leighton Buzzard

With the commitment from M&S, developers Claymore has now applied to get Central Beds Council to remove the constraint.

However independent traders’ group LB First has told the LBO it will oppose such a move due to the devastating impact it could have on the town centre.

Claymore’s application reads: “Most of the approved units are now subject to agreements for lease to retailers who comply with the S106 Restrictions.

“However, despite extensive marketing it has not been possible to secure a compliant user for approved Unit B.

“Marks and Spencer have confirmed that they wish to occupy approved Unit B as an M&S Foodhall.

“However, this would require a variation to the Section 106 Agreement to allow the sale of convenience food from a unit of 1,487sqm gross.”

If they are allowed to take on the unit, the Foodhall would comprise of 826sqm of convenience sales including M&S plant/flowers and potentially include a cafe of around 80sqm, plus around 10sqm of general non-food goods.

The mezzanine level (651 sqm) would be used for back of house and storage.

The report continues: “The application is submitted with the full support of M&S who are committed to opening an M&S Foodhall within Unit B subject to the above variation.

“Historically M&S were traditionally a town centre retailer operating large scale stores selling both non-food and food. However, as the retail market has evolved, M&S has developed a number of formats which complement each other and seek to meet the requirements of its customers.

“M&S Foodhalls and Simply Food stores operates at the lowest tier of M&S’s hierarchy below their larger stores. The first M&S Foodhall (then known as Simply Food) was opened over 15 years ago and by the end of March 2016 there were circa 226 stores nationwide.

“During this period the business model has evolved. This has included M&S learning hard lessons about its customer shopping habits and in some cases having to close poor performing stores which failed to meet these.

“M&S Foodhalls tend to serve the convenience retail needs of relatively modest sized catchment areas and enable the company to better meet their customer needs for food shopping at a local level. The products on sale in the stores focus on M&S’s core food lines with an emphasis on high quality food, fresh produce and pre-prepared foods and meals targeted at the premium end of the market.”

M&S has judged Leighton Buzzard to have a catchment area “with sufficient numbers of the higher socio-economic groups who form the majority of M&S customers”.

The report adds: “M&S have closed a significant number of stores in the past where they have not been viable. The company has therefore developed a rigorous understanding of what is necessary to ensure the success of its future stores.”

The Leighton base would sell about 5,000 lines, compared with circa 20,000 lines plus in a typical mainstream foodstore.

The report says: “In size terms, M&S Foodhalls operate between a local convenience store and a larger supermarket. It will therefore meet an element of main food shopping needs, albeit not bulk main food shopping, and top-up shopping trips.”

With the adopted Land South of High Street development brief seeking a new small supermarket as a potential anchor store, Claymore points out that a recent consultant’s report for Central Beds Council concluded that there was little interest in a retail-led scheme and the focus had turned to leisure operators on that town centre site. They add that the land has not been marketed or been made formally available by Central Beds Council either.

They also say that Leighton Buzzard town centre is in good health and the existing supermarkets are trading well.

The report explains: “Existing foodstores are overtrading at a significant level (£25m). Waitrose within the centre is overtrading the company average by £5.6m. Tesco and Morrisons on the edge of centre are overtrading by £10m and £9.4m respectively.

“Accordingly there is significant opportunity to divert expenditure from these outlets to support a new foodstore within the Leighton Buzzard catchment. This could be done without reducing trading levels below the company averages and hence jeopardise the viability of existing stores.”

Chairman of LB First, Gennaro Borrelli, said the group would be opposing the application which posed a “grave danger” to the town centre.

He said: “This is what we feared would happen, that once planning consent was granted for the retail parks it would be a slow chipping away and loosening of the restrictions.

“Once we have bulky goods, convenience food, a cafe, and free parking on the edge of town it would be very detrimental for the town centre shops and the market to compete. It may even have an effect on the chains who may have to lay off staff to recoup losses.”

He added that the Land South of High Street scheme should have been progressed and marketed by now and M&S would have been ideal tenant there instead.

Claymore has targeted a late summer 2018 opening date for the site, with Wickes, B&M, Pets at Home and KFC also lined up as tenants.

Last week it completed the forward sale of the Grovebury Retail Park in Leighton Buzzard to a client of Aberdeen Asset Management for £16m.

Stephen Cole, of Claymore, said: “Completion of the funding agreement with Aberdeen is great news for Leighton Buzzard as it will now allow Claymore to deliver this exciting retail scheme which from initial concept has received overwhelming public support due to the lack of existing accessible retail in the town.

“Construction can now start in the next few weeks and once completed, Grovebury Retail Park will provide some 250 full-time new jobs.”