Central Beds Council has refuted accusations that it is putting the town centre’s future at risk by blocking progress on Leighton Buzzard’s South Side development.
A Freedom of Information Act request, which was initially rejected by the council but then answered after a review, has revealed that a retail developer showed interest in the site in March last year.
That has angered campaigners who say that CBC went on record last December to say that they drawn a blank in the initial marketing of the land for retail – and that a consultant’s report had concluded that there was only demand from the leisure sector, restaurants, hotel and small cinema operators.
Jason Longhurst, the council’s director for regeneration and business, told the LBO this week: “We welcomed initial interest from a developer through an agent.
“This is commonplace and while the enquiry highlighted in the Freedom of Information request did not come to fruition, we do have ongoing interest from other parties, though no formal offer or interest has come forward at this stage us to take forward.
“We continue to promote and engage with interested parties who, with us, would wish to bring the land south of High Street forward in line with our committed development proposal for this area.
“However, given the commercial sensitivities of any market interest we cannot provide any further details until we have a clear offer for this site.”
Mr Longhurst insisted that the council was proactively promoting the site and added: “We are moving this project forward, guided by our market intelligence report, which was published at the end of last year.
“This concluded that while there was no interest from major branded retailers in land south of the High Street, and in particular clothing stores, there is a niche for leisure, culture and entertainment providers.
“We are now working towards producing a development proposal for land south of the High Street that will then be subject to our statutory decision-making processes regards releasing public land to enable developments of such sites.
“It’s at this point that we will consult with residents about our proposals.”
Victoria Harvey, of South Beds Friends of the Earth who submitted the FoI request, said: “South Beds Friends of the Earth were aware that developers working through Hunters had expressed an interest and had walked around the site with a town councillor in spring 2016 and had contacted CBC.
“We were surprised at the silence following this contact, so we put in a Freedom of Information request to see CBC’s response.
“CBC said that that the answer was ‘commercially sensitive’ and could not be shown, so we had to take legal advice to write a formal letter requesting an internal review under the environmental information regulations in order to see the response from CBC to the developer.
“We were very surprised at the response [that a retail developer was showing an interest] as it contradicts much of what has been said to the partnership committee and the public.
“We were led to believe by CBC councillors that there was no market interest and that was why there was no
retail development in the town centre. The community plan consultation and many surveys shows that people want more retail especially clothes in the town centre as this supports the market and the other independent shops.”
Ms Harvey pointed to the recent CBC development management committee where town and CBC councillor Amanda Dodwell had supported the EDS scheme for a retail park at Grovebury Road on the back of no retail interest in the town centre South Side development.
Ms Harvey added: “Cllr Dodwell is saying that there is no application for retail in the town centre so we need the out of town retail park, but she must know that the reality is that CBC are blocking development in the town centre and misleading the public and the town council.
“The worst thing is that this really risks the future of our historic town centre and all these consultations and
reports by CBC are such a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Gennaro Borrelli, chairman of independent traders’ group LB First, told the LBO he had walked the South Side site with a representative of Hawkstone Properties in late February last year and
confirmed they had been very interested in the land’s potential but wanted more information from CBC.
The LBO has seen emails which show that Hawkstone Properties approached CBC but were told last March that the council was “exploring the development potential of the land” and it was “not available at present”.
Mr Borrelli said: “I can’t get to the bottom of this. CBC made a public statement that there was no market interest, and we brought up Hawkstone showing an interest but being told the land isn’t available yet.
“Either it is on the market and they’re touting interest, or it isn’t.
“It appears it is when they are touting interest from the leisure market, but when there’s retail interest from Hawkstone it isn’t on the market. It’s a very muddled picture.”
Mr Borrelli said he felt Hawkstone could still be interested, particularly if extra parcels of land could be brought up from private landowners to maximise the development potential of the South Side.
“These people are serious people,” he said. “They deal with a lot of local authorities. I understand they even offered to contact private landlords directly as they can work quicker at securing extra parcels of land than the council.”
The LBO contacted Hawkstone Properties on Friday, but they had not responded by the time the LBO went to press.
Its website states that it has enabled £110million of high street, edge of town and out of town schemes to be developed, providing High Street stores for Accessorize, Borders Books, Bridgman, Card Factory, French Connection, JJB, Monsoon, Mothercare, Sports Direct, Superdrug and The Entertainer.
It has also helped provide out of town retail stores for Aldi, Bathstore, Brantano, Farmfoods, Home Bargains, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Poundland, Poundworld, Sainsburys, Sports Direct, Tesco, Topps Tiles and TK Maxx.
It is currently progressing schemes in Ashford, Aylesford, Banbury, Clacton-on-Sea and Tamworth.