Leighton Buzzard is reeling from the bombshell announcement than the long-awaited retail and leisure development designed to boost the town centre appears to have been abandoned.
Leighton-Linslade’s bemused mayor, independent traders’ group and other campaigners have described the news as a bolt from the blue after two Central Beds Council officers revealed alternative plans for developing the South Side of the High Street to a town council partnership committee meeting.
In 2012, Central Beds Council unveiled its Land South of High Street development brief – a new retail district that would be built over the area of Park Street and Cattle Market, with delivery anticipated for 2016.
But now the emphasis has shifted from the initial scheme which included 30-plus retail units, anchored by a major store and a cinema.
Instead Central Beds seems to have shifted the focus to building housing, a hotel and offices.
Yesterday CBC described the development brief as “guidance” and said it was exploring “innovative options” for sustainable uses of the land.
Mayor Steve Cotter, who chaired the partnership meeting where the CBC officers broke the news, said he had no inkling of the bombshell before it was made public.
He said: “We were all very, very shocked when there appeared to be no recognition that we had been promised this as retail. I’ve no doubt it wasn’t easy getting a retail developer into that space. But there was a view [from the Central Beds Council officers] that they had never talked about it as a retail only development.”
Councillor Cotter fumed: “There has never been any question that it wasn’t a retail development, hence the shock when they told us it might be a hotel with some commercial property.
“I asked them to define what they meant by commercial was... and that was offices and potentially residential.
“For five years I’ve sat in partnership committee meetings and whenever it’s been discussed it’s always been a retail development.
“Don’t they remember this document in 2012? [the south side development brief].
“Apparently Central Beds are close to a deal with a hotel chain who’ll want 50-60 parking spaces.”
Gennaro Borrelli, chairman of independent traders’ group LB First said he was bemused as to why the 2012 South Side development brief, which had cost Central Beds Council “hundreds of thousands of pounds” in consultancy fees to draw up, had apparently been disregarded.
He added that the 2014 residents’ survey had demonstrated that the public wanted an improved retail offer.
“CBC paid for the survey to be done, yet they are going against everything in it,” he said.
Mr Borrelli added: “I was fuming. It totally goes against everything we have been working towards.
“A great deal of public money has been spent on this. Consultants have been drawing up a design brief and we have had public consultations.
“It’s so bizarre. How can the Executive at Central Beds Council sign it off and then these officers claim ‘what design brief?’.
“We have a plan for projected retail being used for housing and some commercial – which when we pressed the officers they said would be an office block and a hotel – and yet there is industrial land being put aside for retail parks.
“We are also awash with office space they can’t rent out which is being converted into flats.
“We are faced with a triple whammy, with the retail park at Grovebury Road, what they are now proposing for South Side and the parking charge increase.
“All these factors combined together will have a seriously detrimental effect on the town centre.
“It will cause a congestion nightmare. We will lose the Duncombe Drive car park and they will need parking for the hotel and residents of the housing.
“It’ll be a slow death for the town centre and we’ll end up like Dunstable with huge housing growth and no facilities to go with it.
“CBC reckon our High Street is already under a lot of pressure. But a commercial property director is one of our LB First members. Most of the shops that are vacant are going to be opening again soon.”
Leighton resident and former town centre trader Colin Ashby has campaigned for years to demand CBC presses ahead with the South Side retail scheme.
He claimed the South Side could bring in around 750 full and part-time jobs – whereas the revised idea for a hotel would generate less than 50.
He said: “The consultants who created the 2012 brief are experienced property experts, urban planners and architects and infrastructure engineers.
“They have the same opinion as most in their professions that mixed developments are part of the future of regenerating town centres.”
“The basis for Councillor Nigel Young’s and [CBC officer] Jason Longhurst’s new solution is a report called Beyond Retail.
“It seems that certain aspects have been taken out of context and the conclusion is that no retailer will come to Leighton Buzzard and therefore the South Side would not work and be a ‘white elephant’.”
But Mr Ashby pointed out that since the Portas Review on High Streets in 2011 there has been a lot more interest in high streets and town centres.
“If Councillor Young and Mr Longhurst talked to a small cross section of people, or even heeded the surveys and Big Plan created by talking to the local people, they would understand what people want and that if they even bothered to look at the research out in the public domain, they would realise that the South Side Design Brief as agreed by the Executive Committee was sound.”
He said that although the internet had impacted on town centres, the web was starting to plateau with retailers starting to realise that they needed a physical presence.
Mr Ashby said: “The other major point to make is that towns around us – Milton Keynes, Bedford, Hemel Hempstead, Watford, Aylesbury and Northampton are in the middle of, or starting, major projects in their town centres.
“They are as cash strapped as Central Bedfordshire but all are making efforts to improve their town centres by themselves or with partners.
“They all realise that to improve their local economies they have to have the best offer of retail, food and drink, entertainment and other public facilities they can to attract people in from their town or the surrounding area.”
Mr Ashby called for a CBC rethink, adding: “Once this land is built on it’s gone for decades if not centuries and will stifle the growth of the town.”
Ken Barry, of South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth, who has joined Mr Ashby and fellow FoE member Victoria Harvey in the campaign to urge CBC to press ahead with the South Side retail scheme, said: “It is unbelievable that one councillor and one officer can completely overrule the other councillors in the same party, as well as hundreds of thousands of pounds of expert reports paid for by CBC taxpayers and risk our historic town centre in order to build high density housing.
“The Conservative party is supposed to protect and conserve our historic town and market and support local independent shops.
“In the Conservative election leaflet last year Cllr Dodwell who is both a CBC councillor and town councillor, stated that ‘Let me be very clear; we do not need and we do not want any more development in our town’.
“The reason why people go to Milton Keynes is the lack of clothes shops and the reason for lack of big clothes shops is the lack of large format stores which is why the plans for retail in the south side of the high street are so important to the health of the town centre and South Beds Friends of the Earth is determined to fight this.”
Central Beds Cllr Nigel Young, Executive Member for Regeneration, said: “The Leighton Buzzard Development Brief has not changed. It provides guidance for projects such as Land South of High Street, which remains a key regeneration scheme as an aspirational retail-led mixed-use quarter, aimed at building on the town’s strong and vibrant market town heritage.
“All development is market-led and we are currently exploring innovative options with developers and business to provide sustainable uses which can ensure the prosperity and growth of the town centre, by attracting people to live, work and shop.”
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