Changes to retail plan for Stone under fire
Last-minute changes to plans for retail development in Stone came in for fierce criticism at the public examination of the borough Local Plan.
Stafford Borough Council’s Local Plan – the documents that sets out where new housing, retail and employment space should be sited over the next couple of decades – was submitted to the Secretary of State in the summer and is now being examined by independent planning inspector Stephen Pratt. He will make a decision on whether the Plan is sound – or if elements of it need to change.
The examination has been taking place since 23rd October at Stafford Borough Council’s headquarters and, on the afternoon of 29th October, it was the turn of Stone Town.
Unsurprisingly, Westbridge Park and the issue of new retail floorspace in Stone dominated the meeting.
Stafford Borough Council made a number of late changes to their plans for Stone Town and Westbridge Park:
- The town centre boundary was extended to incorporate land at Westbridge Park, Morrison’s car park and Crown Wharf – and the land at Westbridge Park was removed from the ‘green infrastructure’ boundary
- The term ‘mixed-use development’ for Westbridge Park was removed and a more specific description included: “leisure, community facilities and retail provision (not to include residential) on that part of Westbridge Park within the town centre boundary”
- The criteria for retail space was changed – up from 1,400 to 1,700 sq metres of new food retail space; and down from 2,200 to 400 sq metres of non-food retail space
These changes – at such a late stage of the process – came in for close scrutiny from the inspector – and fierce criticism from many of the parties around the table.
The borough council want to include these changes in the Local Plan as ‘minor modifications’ – the inspector said, however, that they could be seen as ‘major modifications’, which would then need further consultation.
Peter Weatherhead for Keep Westbridge Park Green said: “These are substantial, major changes that should have been the subject of consultation. The Local Plan for Stone is fundamentally changed by them and they could have been introduced much earlier.”
Paul Baukhar from Stafford Borough Council said there was a need – demonstrated by evidence – that Stone needed another supermarket. He cited a town centre assessment carried out in 2011 – and updated earlier this year – that showed “significant overtrading” at Morrisons supermarket. He said that 20% of the local Stone population drive to Stafford to do their main food shopping, with 10% heading for Stoke-on-Trent. He said the council is recommending one new supermarket for Stone – “slightly bigger than the Aldi on the A34″ – and that all the evidence points to Westbridge Park as the best location.
Peter Weatherhead for Keep Westbridge Park Green responded by saying that the evidence base does not support the council’s proposal for Westbridge Park to be identified as the site for a supermarket. He said there is no “unacceptable level of overtrading” at Morrisons, adding: “The evidence base does not support allocation at Westbridge Park.”
The issue of whether the borough council has already allocated Westbridge Park as a site for retail development was a major sticking point between the borough council, Keep Westbridge Park Green and others.
Tony Aspbury for Trent Vision Trust, which wants to develop land off the Fillybrooks, said: “It is inappropriate and not good practice to be allocating a site at this stage of the process. It is premature and does not allow proper debate of all potential sites in the town for retail development. There is a simple solution – the council should remove this level of detail from the Local Plan. We can then have a proper debate about where the 1,700 sq metres of food retail space should be sited.”
The inspector challenged the borough council directly on this. He asked them – and called it the “killer question – “What would be the impact on the Plan if the use for Westbridge Park was expunged and dealt with at a later stage?”
David Smethurst from the council said: “The Local Plan needs a town centre boundary. This is not an allocation – it’s a movement of the boundary. We should have made these changes earlier, but we’re not trying to conceal anything or to push anything through.”
There’s a summary of other points and issues from the meeting below – and I’ve tried to give as full an account as possible. But you can also listen to the examination yourself. The recording is in two parts, and I’ve included rough timings for different speakers so you can zone in on what you’d like to listen to.
Here’s Part 1…
[Click HERE to listen to the audio if you can't see the audio player above]
… and a rough list of timings:
Start – Introduction by inspector / summary from Stafford Borough Council and questions from inspector
39:45 – Peter Weatherhead for Keep Westbridge Park Green
48:00 – Local resident Mr Kaut
52:10 – Local resident Robert Jones
54:25 – Local resident Jonathan Heald
1:09:10 – Local resident Richard Evans
1:12:20 – Robert Luscombe from the Inland Waterways Association
1:19:40 – Tony Aspbury from Trent Vision Trust
And here’s Part 2…
[Click HERE to listen to the audio if you can't see the audio player above]
… and a list of rough timings:
Start – Jane Field from the Environment Agency
13:00 – Stafford Borough Council’s response to points raised by interested parties
32:20 – Peter Weatherhead for Keep Westbridge Park Green
47:30 – Ian Fordham from Keep Westbridge Park Green
51:05 – Local resident Robert Jones
53:20 – Local resident Jonathan Heald
55:50 – Dr M Bell
1:02:30 - Robert Luscombe from the Inland Waterways Association
1:10:00 – Environment Agency representatives
1:15:50 – Final questions from the inspector to the borough council
1:22:45 – What happens next? Closing remarks from the inspector
Lots of points were made at the examination. Here’s a summary…
Stone resident Jonathan Heald hit out at the borough council over their artists’ impressions of a supermarket on Westbridge Park, saying one was “completely dishonest”. He said a supermarket on Westbridge Park would be a blot on the landscape and ruin the green vista. He also said he was concerned at the lack of discussion during the examination on the impact of new retail development in Stone on the High Street
Robert Luscombe from the Inland Waterways Association said: “Seven thousand boats pass through Stone every year. Building a food store at Westbridge Park detracts from the town centre. Boaters will use the supermarket and not go into the town. And it won’t make the canal in Stone more attractive. We would support retail development at Crown Wharf, which would open up a gateway between the canal and the High Street and greatly benefit the town.”
He expressed his disappointment that any impact on the canal in Stone would only be addressed as part of any future planning applications, saying: “There doesn’t appear to be a strategy for strengthening Stone’s links with the canal, rather a very piecemeal approach.”
Stone resident Richard Evans, who is in favour of the borough council’s idea of development at Westbridge Park, said that Morrisons is trading at levels close to the Tesco in Stafford, a much larger supermarket. He also flagged up Stone’s population growth, which had grown by 15.8% between 1991 and 2001, and another 12% by 2011 – significantly above the national average – and showing the need for new facilities and resources in the town.
Flood risk at Westbridge Park was another hot topic on the day. Resident Robert Jones highlighted the need to raise the level of Westbridge Park for any building work to alleviate flood risk. A representative from the Environment Agency said that development on Westbridge Park was “technically viable” but that a full flood risk assessment would be needed as part of any future planning application. She added that “flood warning measures” would have to be looked at in consultation with the Staffordshire civil contingencies unit.
The new leisure facilities for Westbridge Park – which the borough council hope would be funded by a supermarket moving on to the site – were covered. The borough council said that its consultation on its leisure strategy was not part of the Local Plan process but was a separate initiative. Dr M Bell said that “ample money could be generated elsewhere to fund a leisure centre”.
So what happens next?
The inspector will make his interim conclusions on the Local Plan as a whole, indicating where the Plan is – and is not – sound. On the areas where the Plan is not considered sound by the inspector, Stafford Borough Council will have time to address these and prepare modifications. This includes six weeks for any extra consultation that may be required. The Local Plan examination in public may even be reconvened after this period should the inspector deem it necessary. When all this is done, the final, inspector-approved Local Plan will be published.
You can see lots of documents and find out more about the Local Plan examination process HERE