A council admission that Leighton Buzzard’s long-awaited South Side development is no longer a “priority project” has been met with dismay this week.
Central Beds Council has been accused of “letting down” the town and “giving up” on the project, although CBC insists work remains ongoing to encourage private sector interest in the site.
A development brief for the land was first adopted by Central Beds Council back in 2012, and promised to revitalise the town centre with a 30-shop retail area anchored by a major store.
In December 2016, consultants GVA reported that retailers had little interest in the potential development, although there was healthy demand from the leisure sector, mid to high range restaurants, and some entertainment providers such as a small cinema and a hotel.
CBC said it was proactively promoting the site based on the research findings, but the lack of further news prompted Central Beds Councillor Roy Johnstone (Ind) to press council officers for an update – and he has been left “livid” by what he was told.
In an email to Cllr Johnstone, CBC regeneration officer Stephen Mooring wrote: “It is important to stress that currently the Land South of the High Street does not feature in the list of priority projects for the council as determined by leadership.
“So in the near term resource is focused on the delivery of other projects. Consequently there is not an awful lot to report.”
The message went on to confirm there had been little interest in the site, although Whitbread had shown some interest in the Cattle Market area, but ”due to the economy and a change of staff” this had not been followed through on.
Cllr Johnstone said: “I was pressing for an update as this has been going on at least 10-12 years now. I got an email saying it does not feature in our priority projects. We’ve been let down and they’ve switched over to other projects.
“We do need to get going on it, we need people on board. It’s a massive project, the leaders have just given up because it has become too difficult.
“There’s not been enough thought, time, or respect to Leighton-Linslade whatsoever. I’m livid about this email. It hacks me off and it will hack off a lot of other people in town.”
He attacked the council’s portfolio holders, which he said were mostly councillors from other parts of Central Beds, for cynically prioritising their own areas for new projects with a 2019 local election looming.
He said: “If South Side is on hold, we know where the projects are... Flitwick Leisure Centre and Dunstable Leisure Centre and library. We raise more in Leighton-Linslade by way of our council tax than anywhere else, £21m. Next is Dunstable at £18m.
“Nothing is being spent here at all. The amount of new build housing here is more than any other part of the district and we need facilities. Where are people going to go for leisure?”
Central Beds Council says the South Side project is linked to the future of Westlands Care Home, with the council planning to close the home and setting up a new facility on the former police station site in Hockliffe Road.
They say this is a priority and progress would unlock more of the South Side land to boost its regeneration potential via the private sector.
A spokesman said: “Council resources are understandably prioritised towards those projects that are already at an advanced stage of planning or already being built. When we get to this stage with the land South Side of the High Street resources will be allocated appropriately.
“In terms of developing South Side, this is dependent on the private sector wanting to invest. As a council we are doing a lot to encourage this, including advising potential developers ahead of submitting any planning applications.
“Key to developing South Side is the future of Westlands Care Home, work on which is progressing as a council priority and will be pivotal to the development of this area.
“As well as the priority work being undertaken on care home provision, as a council we are actively investing in Leighton-Linslade, including providing grants of up to 60% for improvements to independent shop and business such as Ollie Vee’s, Shan Shui Chinese Restaurant, Smile Creations Dental Innovations and Touch of Class (rebranded as Gennaro’s) as part of our £1million High Street Improvement Scheme.
“In addition, the town has secured £320,000 worth of Market Town Regeneration Fund from us. The funding aims to help make Leighton-Linslade a more attractive place for new visitors and encourage shoppers into the high street. This money is being used to improve the market area and provide support to the traders, as well as lighting in the town centre to help boost spend in the evenings.”
The email Cllr Johnstone received also confirmed there had been a pre-application to CBC for a residential, retail and leisure scheme for 7-9 Church Street – part of the South Side development area – and that planners were liaising with the developer regarding the suitability of the site, with councillors to be informed of more detail if the approach resulted in a full planning application being submitted.
But Cllr Johnstone, town councillor Clive Palmer who chairs the planning committee, plus Gennaro Borrelli, chairman of independent traders’ group LB First, said this week they feared if the scheme moved forward on a pocket of the South Side land it would put the larger regeneration project in doubt.
At the time of the GVA report in December 2016, Cllr Palmer said the South Side scheme, which was originally tipped for 2016, was “absolutely critical” for Leighton Buzzard and added: “We always seem to be going backwards”.
This week he said: “I strongly believe that South Side of the High Street has the potential to impact very positively on the prosperity of the town centre and Leighton-Linslade as a whole.
“Its importance is increased by the extensive developments taking place around the town and our increasing population. Consequently, while recognising that the economic climate has changed over recent years, I would be very disappointed, to put it very mildly, at anything which further delayed it (its development has already been delayed far too long) through giving it a lower priority.
“Similarly, I would be particularly suspicious of any proposal which saw piecemeal development when what is required is an overall strategic view and integral approach. I know that other members of the town council share my concerns on this and I will certainly be taking it up with them with a view to making our position very clear with Central Bedfordshire.”
Mr Borrelli said: “The email confirms our suspicions about the leadership prioritising other projects rather than completing a project already started. A lot of money was spent on the development brief and it was all about CBC making sure they had the whole of the land. They have only got 75% of it. There has been a lack of leadership and lack of direction with this project.
“They needed commitment to get the other parcels of land and open up the area, but it’s been half-hearted. We had the whole fanfare initially and buzzwords and timelines of 3-5 years back in 2012 but they have been stalling and using every excuse in the book ever since.
“They’ve made it difficult, but a £17m regeneration of Dunstable isn’t difficult. It’s only difficult if you want it to be difficult. No retailer will be interest in a piece of land back in the back end of a cul-de-sac, but they would be if there was better access from the high street.”