There are of course so many good reasons why a 30 thousand square foot superstore on Lawnside would be terrible news for Ledbury. Traffic concerns and goods vehicle access in an already congested Bye Street, and the demolition of several important community buildings would seem to be showstoppers for Mr King. And, like the out of town Sainsbury’s which was rejected two years ago, the sheer size of the development exceeds the Council’s own estimates of retail capacity in the town stretching far into the future. Game set and match to Ledbury then. Or is it?
Inconveniently for Ledbury, Mr King has got lots of planning trump cards up his sleeve. In efforts to stimulate the economy, Government has introduced new very relaxed planning rules which presume in favour of building development whatever, wherever. Mr Pickles, the minister in charge of planning, has also restated his absolute commitment to a ‘Town Centres First’ policy, preferring retail developments to be clustered in or near town centres, and not like Sainsbury’s last Ledbury offensive, on the edge or out of town. For all its free-market free-for-all planning bluster, the top planners do seem to have retained a shred of commitment to stopping the High Street rot. Thanks must go to valiant Mary Portas and her town centre crusade for that.
So on planning grounds, a superstore for Lawnside is looking good for King. It’s town centre retail. It’s not going to drain footfall from the High Street, at least by official definitions. It’s building development. From the planning viewpoint, what’s not to like?
Traffic has to be one of the big impediments. But even here, planners and highways engineers have cunning ways. We could see all kinds of creative solutions: parking restrictions down Lower Road, a one way system, lorry access along a service road parallel with the Town Trail, traffic lights at the Homend/Bye Street junction. Anyway, who’s to say that there’s going to be that much extra traffic? Mr King might argue that Ledbury is supposed to be trying to get more shoppers into the centre of town, not less.
The swimming pool and community hall issue is easily disposed of. Out of the massive profits that such a lucrative superstore development would yield in the long term, Mr King will happily toss a few million quid into a new cheap and nasty sports-swimming-community facility, either on a portion of the Rec, or a bit further out. Does he care? Herefordshire Council appear to be willing participants in the plan. Rumours at first denied, but now semi-official, suggest that King has agreed to take over the running costs of the swimming pool for an interim six months plus getting the Council to defer its refurbishment plans, pending the planning application outcome. It’s an ideal arrangement for a bankrupt Herefordshire Council.
Meantime, Fire Service chiefs are busy running down the service, with the loss of one standing fire tender and would, it seems happily move out of centre if the price were right. Ditto the other landlords affected. Let’s not also forget Mr King has already snapped up the Ambulance Station. Right now, he must be smiling in anticipation.
But there is a glimmer of hope. There is one cogent argument against this proposal that may sway the planning committee. It is the matter of its sheer massive volume.
Mr King’s superstore at Lawnside Road of 30 thousand square feet is of identical dimensions to that proposed by Sainsbury’s a mile out of town on the by-pass. This was turned down decisively by planners because it would damage the economic vitality of the town centre by overwhelming the town’s retail capacity - an opinion confirmed in five separate studies by retail planning experts. There is just not enough retail business to go round to support what we have in Ledbury already, plus another superstore bigger than the existing Coop and Tesco stores combined.
A 30 thousand square foot superstore monster – whether on Lawnside or the by-pass - is just too big for our small town. Think of it this way. The proposed shed would comfortably hold every living person in Ledbury without their touching each other. At a stroke it would more than double our existing supermarket provision. Where is all that extra business going to come from? And this at a time when the ‘Big Four’ supermarket operators are rapidly moving away from out of town superstore development into town centre convenience store formats. In case anyone hadn’t noticed, the retail economy is just about as flat as a supermarket car-park.
There are many people in Ledbury who would welcome a makeover in Lawnside Road. With imagination and sensitivity, the area could be transformed into a fine-looking, high quality environment for community use, modest independent retail provision and provide for some much needed apartment style housing. And it could still accommodate a swimming pool and a new community hall. Why can’t we have our cake and eat it?
Rather than one big faceless out-of-date-before-it’s-even-built supermarket shed, why doesn’t Mr King pick up the phone and have a chat with people about some different options, positive solutions, things that add to rather than subtract from Ledbury’s delights.
He might still make a mint on his speculative property deal – but at least Ledbury might not get sold down the river in the process.