Campaigners have hit out at attempts to market Leighton Buzzard’s South Side regeneration scheme which they say have been “shrouded in secrecy”.
Residents Victoria Harvey and Colin Ashby each submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking to prise more information out of the Central Beds Council regarding its consultant GVA’s approaches to major retailers who might jump on board with the regeneration project.
In December the LBO revealed how it was back to the drawing board for the scheme, after Central Beds Council disclosed GVA had found no retailers were interested in the district to be built over the area of Park Street and Cattle Market, plans for which were first drawn up by CBC in 2012.
At the time a summary of the GVA report was revealed and Ms Harvey said it was “scandalous” that the full report had not been made public. This led CBC to promise the detailed report would be made available soon, once commercial sensitive information had been addressed.
Last week at the Community Planning Event for Leighton Buzzard, the LBO understands the full report was handed out to few individuals, and this afternoon CBC confirmed to the LBO that an online version is available at http://www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/Images/leighton-intelligence-report_tcm3-21441.pdf
Ms Harvey and Mr Ashby were left unimpressed by the information gleaned from their FoI requests.
In them they asked for more detail on the 18 retailers that were approached and asked if they only sold clothes or could be described as high street fashion outlets.
The council said ten of 18 “mostly sell clothes”, that “not all the 18 retailers could be described as high street fashion” and that those approached were aware of the Grovebury Road retail parks in the pipeline.
Apart from these ten, a further breakdown of the other firms stated that two were food retailers, two fell into the home category, one sold jewellery, one was a health business, one was sports and one was “other”.
CBC also revealed: “We put forward a list of retailers that are well-known high street retailers and also, suggested by the community. GVA further informed targeted approach through market intelligence based on locality, area profile and project details. GVA utilised their networks and expertise in gauging interest in occupying space at Land South of High Street from these retailers.”
Campaigners have been desperate to keep retail as the key focus of the regeneration plans and have been putting the pressure on Central Beds Council as they fear the emphasis has shifted away from retail to building housing, a hotel and offices on the site.
Ms Harvey said: “Half the shops they did research on were completely irrelevant to what people wanted.
“People were expecting clothes shops/ high street fashion in land south of the High Street – yet the market intelligence report asked 18 retailers of which nearly half did not sell clothes at all, and the rest only mostly sold clothes. Most fashion stores like H&M and Jigsaw would not be described as ‘mostly sell clothes’.
“It is odd that the retailers asked were aware of the two out of town retail parks, as either they were told about them by GVA or they were type of stores already interested in them.”
Ms Harvey added: “This is a very misleading report from CBC shrouded in secrecy, that has been used by CBC to give the impression that clothing stores were not interested in the town centre of Leighton Buzzard despite the recent opening of M&Co.
“It seems from the FoI that retailers asked by the consultants commissioned by CBC were not the type of high street fashion and clothes shops that we were told were planned for the south side of the High Street.”
When addressing Leighton-Linslade Town Council’s partnership committee on December 1 last year, CBC regeneration manager Marc Howard said at the time: “For Land South of the High Street, GVA carried out a soft market testing exercise. They contacted a range of retailers and leisure providers to find out if there’s any interest in taking space Land South of High Street.
“The outcome was three-fold. Firstly, there is healthy demand from the leisure sector, mid to high range restaurants, and some entertainment providers such as a small cinema and a hotel.
“With the retail market, things are very challenging. So while they were interested in Leighton Buzzard, Land South of High Street doesn’t offer what they are looking for.”
The partnership committee meets again on Thursday, February 16, and a report due to go before that meeting from Mr Howard states: “Central Bedfordshire is currently assessing the potential of securing a couple of land parcels to reduce the development risk and gain further control of this area for a regeneration project. We are also currently assessing how this project can proceed over the next five years. More details will be provided in due course.”
CBC’s website also states: “The development proposal will set out what development can go forward; this includes detail about units, urban design, transport links, types of businesses (based on the market study), how we will deliver it and a timetable. We are intending to publish this development proposal in winter 2016/2017.”