It’s back to the drawing board for Land South of High Street in Leighton Buzzard, after a report claimed retailers have no interest in the district.
On Thursday, Leighton Linslade Town Council’s partnership committee met to discuss plans for a 30-shop retail area anchored by a mor store on Land South of the High Street – first drawn up by Central Bedfordshire Council in 2012.
The report – by property consultants GVA – was summarised by CBC regeneration manager Marc Howard.
He said: “The trend in the retail market and the town overall has changed since 2012. It’s focusing towards experience rather than retail.
“What GVA found was that, overall, Leighton Buzzard performs well, with a low vacancy rate and a healthy share of the market. In terms of where people spend their money, local residents are shopping elsewhere. Together with developments nearby, there are challenges to Leighton Buzzard in the near future.”
Mr Howard added that Leighton Buzzard was in a “strong position” to meet the challenge from nearby Milton Keynes.
He went on: “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.”
Chairman of LB First Gennaro Borrelli told the meeting that this was the most information received about Land South of High Street for some time, but questioned the “direct competition” posed by the out of town retail park tipped for Grovebury Road, which already has outline planning consent.
Mr Borelli said: “Given the national guidance is we’re supposed to be looking at town centres first, do we have a committment from CBC that any enquiries from retailers will be directed to Land South of High Street before anything else is considered?”
In response, CBC’s head of regeneration Jason Longhurst said: “Yes ... footfall is critical and vibrancy in the high street is critical.”
Asked about shoppers’ surveys which suggested a need for clothing shops in the town, Mr Longhurst said: “The majority of businesses we’ve approached for that purpose say they have no interest in Land South of High Street.”
He highlighted the growing popularity of out of town retail parks since the 1990s and added that the “biggest risk factor” came from nearby Milton Keynes.
Cllr Clive Palmer said that Land South of High Street, which was originally tipped for 2016, was “absolutely critical” for Leighton Buzzard. He said: “We always seem to be going backwards. How much further backwards is it going to go, or can we look for something to happen there?”
Mr Longhurst responded that dependency on the retail market and the time taken for CBC to purchase the sites at Park Street and Cattle Market had led to the plans going on for nearly five years.
Tricia Humber from the Community Forum said there was a total disengagement from teenagers with the high street. She said: “A high percentage of them never come into the town centre as there’s no offer for them, they still want the clothing offer...
“They are our future. If they are disengaged now, as they grow older they will still be disengaged. All we are doing is creating a desert behind them unless we can create the right [retail] offer to bring them back to the high street, whatever that offer looks like.”
Campaigner Victoria Harvey was also present at Thursday’s partnership committee. Yesterday, she said: “It is scandalous that the full GVA report is still not public four days after the public council meeting.
“The consultants only asked 16 retailers about the south side of the High Street. Were they even clothes retailers? If there was such a lack of interest in clothes shops in the town centre, why were councillors recently assuring us that there was interest from retailers and why has M&Co just opened into the town centre.”
Ms Harvey also accused CBC of promoting the out of town retail park at Grovebury Road, which she has vigorously campaigned against.
She added: “That will replicate 22 of our town centre shops and will take a minimum of £2m of trade from the high street with very poor public transport links. CBC own Land South of High Street and as landlords, they could provide attractive deals to get the clothes shops in the town centre that years of surveys have shown the people of the town really want.”
LB First chairman Mr Borrelli added: “This development has so much potential to give the town a boost firstly by giving residents what they’ve been asking for which is more choice and variety of shops and secondly by helping the market and town centre shops by anchoring the footfall with less need to go out of town to shop.”
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