The plans the purchasers have for the land – which contains the town’s main Post Office, an extensive yard and further buildings that were once the town sorting office before it moved to the industrial estate at Firbank Way – are currently unknown.
The site is where planning permission for a block of 20 flats submitted in 2018 has previously been turned down. This was because of widespread objections both from the residents and the historic local pubs, The Black Lion and the Golden Bell, which back onto the site. It was felt there would be conflict over noise with the public using the pub gardens for summer recreation and local residents, once the flats had been built.
Subsequent ideas by the same London developers, Mayfair 500, for a hotel and commercial building on the site, although publicised and discussed with Central Bedfordshire Council, never got as far as being submitted for formal planning permission. It is believed that the Covid crisis meant the viability of the project became in doubt.
The land has been on sale for a year through London Chartered Surveyors, Copping Joyce of Warship Street in the city. The agent who sold the Post Office site on their behalf, Anthony Brown, had told enquirers that the land was on sale for £750,000 and the buildings for £1million, although the final sale price is not known. The agent has so far not returned the LBO’s calls.
The Post Office in London that sold the land told the LBO the town’s main Post Office would remain and the company had “retained the use of the buildings”. This does not make clear whether the building itself was sold but it could mean that the Post Office will lease the current buildings back from the developers and pay rent instead of owning the freehold.
An LBO source said: “It is unlikely that the developer would want to demolish the building, which although not listed as of special architectural interest, is at the centre of a conservation area and considered to be an important part of townscape.
“One surprise is why Central Bedfordshire Council did not bid for the land. In the council’s 2012 development brief [viewable here] it clearly states that council policy is to buy this land south of the High Street to consolidate its already considerable land holding.”
The council owns land from Duncombe Drive that runs across the back of the High Street. According to the brief, a roadway was to be constructed alongside the Post Office through the site that has just been sold and onwards through council owned land to link up with Lake Street. The land was earmarked for commercial use, shops, cafes and possibly residential development and provide a new commercial artery for the town centre.
Asked about this, agent Anthony Brown said it had told prospective purchasers that, knowing Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) had expressed an interest in consolidating its land holding, the council been made aware the land was for sale but informed the agent it was not interested - although CBC disputes this claim.
In the 2012 development brief it was clear that CBC planners thought that new shops and a large department store, possible Marks and Spencer, would “anchor” the new developments on the South Side and provide a magnet for other businesses. However, the recession and the hollowing out of many town centres meant this plan has never come to fruition. The CBC brief at the time said the development would take five to 10 years or possibly more. Some of council owned land has been derelict for more than 40 years.
In response to queries from the LBO about CBC’s failure to buy the land this year despite its 2012 development brief, the council issued a statement: “Central Bedfordshire Council’s Assets team (the team that deals with the council’s land and property acquisitions and disposals) has not been contacted by an agent to see if the council was interested in acquiring this land.”