|A work in progress - the site of the Angel|
Just after the City Council elections in May last year, the new Labour dominated quietly approved a request from council planning officials to recommend that Sainsbury’s plan to convert the Angel Hotel in Caerleon into a convenience store be approved. The proposals which had been put forward by Hillvale Properties who operated on behalf of Sainsbury’s prompted over 1,700 people to sign petitions against it, and 127 neighbours to write letters of objection.
Local people told the council that the plan to turn the pub, located on Goldcroft Common, Caerleon, into a 385 square metre retailer with two flats on the first floor would “exacerbate an already dangerous and difficult traffic situation”. Concerns were raised that local shops – several independent retailers including a sandwich shop and a Spar are nearby – would close, while the petition said the historical character and sense of community in Caerleon would be tarnished.
There are also concerns about anti-social behaviour, noise to residents, and parking which is claimed is already at saturation point in the area. As someone who periodically travels on the bus to and from work past the Angel, parking can at times be grim in and around the area of the Angel and traffic congestion is a real issue.
For reasons beholden unto themselves City planners noted that a new store opening would “enhance” the Caerleon district centre, add to its “retail floorspace” and suggested that the store was unlikely to harm the village centre’s viability. The planners duly noted that the Spar and Pipers News shops may lose trade, but “it is not the role of the planning system to restrict competition”. This may well be a fair point but what about any real investigation into the economic impact of the development on the village?
The planner had also noted that traffic concerns were “understandable”, but had added “there is no robust evidence” that the proposal would result in “a significant and harmful increase in traffic.” Spaces for seven customer cars during deliveries would meet parking requirements, and Gwent Police had raised no objection to the proposal. The planners had also called for conditions imposing restricted delivery hours.
The recommendation was to proceed with the application, despite any local objections. One question that should be loudly asked is just who is the planning system serving, clearly not the expressed wishes of the residents of Caerleon. I have no doubt that if the City Councillors vote down the proposed development that they will be told that the developer will appeal and keep appealing until they get the result they want and that this will cost a small fortune.
Now, none of this is new, the larger food retailers are systematically targeting the small shopping areas across Wales and the rest of the UK as they aggressively seek every greater profits and a larger market share. If this development goes a head the medium to long term impact on Caerleon will be a loss of trade, jobs and customer choice. This is not the first time that this has happened in Newport, and it will not be the last.
Back in June 2011 Tesco won their appeal against an initial decision to turn down planning permission for a new store. Over 500 people had objected to Tesco plans to open an Express store in a dis-used pub, the Black Horse Inn on Somerton Road. The Council planning officers had on that occasion recommended that the application be refused over concerns about congestion and road safety issues and a lack of parking provision.
Local residents also objected on grounds of the impact of the development on existing shops. The Council's planning committee considered the application on 1st April 2009 and rejected the plans. The then planning committee recommended refusal on three grounds - that it would be detrimental to the vitality and viability of nearby retail centres; insufficient parking; substandard access.
The Planning Inspectorate however allowed Tesco to appeal to convert the former Black Horse Inn pub on Somerton Road into an Express store. The Tesco PR machine no doubt rolled out the usual claptrap about creating jobs and boosting the local economy , here should have been little doubt that the planned new Tesco Express store in Somerton, is part of an aggressive business strategy expressly targeting local shops and small businesses in local shopping areas, with a view to taking their trade. This is part of a recognised problem which is taking place across Wales and which does not just relate to Tesco but most of the other larger UK wide retail chains.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has long noted that the UK loses approximately 2,000 local shops every year and should this continue then by 2015 there will be no independent retailers left in business, something that effects consumers and communities as they effectively lose any real choice in the marketplace. Over recent years across all of Wales, that particularly useful mix of local shops, small businesses and local suppliers have come under increasing pressure as the usual suspects in the shape of “identikit” chain stores have replicated themselves across our towns.
Our planning process has been fundamentally weakened and effectively undermined, as local authorities fear the cost implications of supermarket applications being taken to appeal after appeal if the original outline planning permission is refused. We are proceeding down a slippery slope, when Councillors end up being advised by their officers to grant planning permission less the potential costs of refusing a development proposal from a large company prove to damaging - so much for local democracy!