At today’s long awaited meeting of the Sedgemoor District Council Development Control committee, councillors finally voted 8.3 to grant planning permission to the Supermarket giant Tesco to build on the site. Westover Ward Labour District councillors attended and spoke strongly against the proposal supported by adjoining Labour ward councillors from Victoria and Eastover, Alan Hurford speaking on behalf of the Town Council, Nick Gibson on behalf of local residents plus 170 letters of objection against 1 solitary letter of support.
The meeting opened with a rambling defence of the proposal from case officer Rebecca Miller, many of her statements drawing laughter from the 70 strong audience. Things got worse when sole supporter – former Tory councillor David Preece – had his 3 minutes worth claiming he ‘liked to select fresh produce himself’ to cries of ‘horsemeat?’ and a barrage of ‘owl noises’.
“Declining margins, cuts and job losses”
Resident Nick Gibson was the only one of the 170 opponents allowed to speak according to the quaint rules of the committee , but spoke passionately and informedly “..against the size, type and scale of the development.” He continued “The most interesting towns are the ones that provide diverse and interesting shops, good lasting architecture,leisure, green spaces and arts. Every town nearby has good convenience/supermarket provision and the idea that people will travel county-wide past every other supermarket to get here is crazy. It will take from other shops and supermarkets already here causing declining margins, cuts and job losses.”
Nick received a tremendous round of applause from the audience as did all the speakers who opposed the development. Next up was Town Clerk Alan Hurford who spoke on behalf of the Bridgwater Town Council who he said were ‘strongly opposed to the Tesco development’ and cited ‘loss of open space, adverse impact on the environment, dwellings and properties in the vicinity, noise and light pollution, impact on heritage assets and a detrimental effect on the town centre.’
“The Developer is King”
Westover Ward members Brian Smedley and Kathy Pearce took the michrophone next and both spoke strongly against the Tesco application.
Cllr Brian Smedley (Labour, Westover) said, ” I am against this for the reasons stated – but also because there are alternatives –we don’t need to just sell ourselves to any multinational that comes along- the Hepher Dixon report in 2006 concluded that: ‘Northgate has potential to accommodate a range of uses which could significantly improve the retail, leisure and commercial offer of the town centre’. We’ve supported that consistent approach – it’s the ruling group that have deviated from it and that’s why we’re here today asking for refusal. Well, this ‘deviation’ has now seemingly became the Council’s Economic Masterplan (2008)-although I’m not sure that unbridled competition is counted as an ‘economic masterplan’.Tesco’s involvement is a profoundly unequal relationship…SDC policy as stated by it’s Chief Executive is “’the developer is KING’….that of course makes sedgemoor their Feudal underlings….and we know where that leaves the rest of us…”
Cllr Kathy Pearce (Labour, Westover) said, ” This is not any old piece of brownfield site. We are blessed in this town with a number of natural and historic assets. Over the years, opportunities have been wasted to capitalise on this. Please do not make the same mistake here. This is an area which is an asset and amenity to the town of which we should be proud and one which deserved to be cherished. It therefore deserves a very special scheme to enhance the area and benefit the town, its residents and visitors. I do not believe that his is not such a scheme. The damage done to this conservation area will never be able to be undone and I urge Councillors to reject this proposal.”
“Pressure on the existing town centre”
Labour group leader Cllr Mick Lerry (Bridgwater Victoria) spoke against the development and questioned the information being put before members -particularly the effect on traffic flow –“There has been no real traffic assessment regarding the effect on increased traffic in Victoria ward and the docks. The Bridgwater Vision calls for a vibrant town centre and officers talk about ‘leakage’ of Bridgwater spend to other towns – but in reality there’s no leakage in groceries. Tesco are not about bringing back ‘leakage’, they will just put pressure on the existing town centre”
Labour councillor Julian Taylor (Bridgwater, Eastover) also claimed the committee had not been provided with all the information needed to make an informed decision. “There will not be an increase in jobs just a transfer of jobs with the actual likelihood of a decrease.” He went on to say “I am very concerned that the Council is in danger of repeating the same mistake as with Asda where they promised regeneration but in reality people just came, shopped and left”
“Profits for Tescos”
Melanie Chiswell, Tescos Regional Development manager, was the final speaker – and not very well received as she asked “What do we mean by regeneration?” (“Profits for Tescos ” came the reply) and alarmingly added, “We are prepared to discuss the future of the Brewery field with local people to protect it from future developers” (She couldn’t be more ironic if she tried). Things didn’t get any better when she admitted she “used to live in North Petherton but chose to shop in Taunton”.
Now it was the turn of the 15 Planning Committee members to ask questions, make points and come to a decision.
“The committee decides”
The Committee of 15 (10 out of town Conservatives, 4 Bridgwater Labour and 1 Highbridge Independent) was reduced to 12 as 2 Tories were absent (Caswell-Cannington & Smout-Burnham North) and one , Cllr Dawn Hill (Cheddar) , declared an interest and left the meeting .
The four Bridgwater Labour councillors opened the statements from the floor – but immediately seemed uneasy as they fell over themselves stressing that they hadn’t yet made their mind up. This was a bit odd as the Labour Town & District Groups had already strongly campaigned against Tescos, the Labour controlled Town Council (of which they were all members) and Labour ward and adjoining ward members had already spoke strongly against the application. It must be assumed that the constant barrage of ‘advice’ from the Councils monitoring officer regarding ‘pre-determination’ had it’s desired effect .
“Ruin the High street”
No such worry for Independent Highbridge Councillor Mike Mansfield who stated he was strongly against the Tescos development which he said would “ruin the High street” and would be voting that way.
And no such worry for the Tory group who all expressed their views about the obvious problems with the proposal – and then all voted in favour.
It was councillor Alec Glassford (Labour, Fairfax) that gave Tescos their first blood by suggesting the field was “..underused and would benefit from enhancement” – a theme then picked up with confidence by subsequent Tory councillors . Things got worse when Bridgwater Mayor Graham Granter (Labour, Fairfax) stated that he had an open mind and was reassured by several of the conditions proposed.
“wide open gulf”
This wide open gulf amongst the 4 Bridgwater councillors present needed to be patched up for the proposal to have a chance of being defeated and Cllr Dave Loveridge (Labour, Eastover) made a spirited attempt to play on the issue of the 40 ton lorries turning into the goods yard up a ramp and opposite an old peoples home on a very tight junction. He also mentioned a personal survey he had done sitting in a cafe in Weston Super Mare opposite the Tesco there and “..counted only 1 in every 5 cars actually turning into the town as opposed to driving straight out again having done their shopping”.
Tory Councillor Neville Jones did his usual playing to the audience and built up hopes as he suggested temporary indecision “Tesco will be en entity in itself and will supply everything so people won’t use the town centre as it’ll all be there. It’ll be it’s own town centre. The objectors are pretty sensible and they realise that there’ll be no going back once permission is granted. The people of Bridgwater love their Brewery Field and if we make a mistake there’ll be no retreat. I say this knowing full well that it won’t be me that will have to suffer the consequences like the people of Bridgwater will!”
And with that little bit of dramatic tension it went to the vote. But the theatre of the blatantly obvious came to it’s inevitable conclusion as all 7 Tories present voted to support Tesco . And then a twist – up went the hand of Bridgwater Labour’s Cllr Glassford-which brought gasps of shock from the audience. In the end only Labour councillors Dave Loveridge and Ken Richards voted against, alongside Highbridge Independent Mike Mansfield.
Equally disappointing was Mayor of Bridgwater Graham Granter’s perceived abstention. The Mayor explained his situation after the meeting saying, ” I did not abstain as stated. Unfortunately as i had left the meeting to go to the toilet and did not hear all the debate I was barred from taking the vote. It was my first meeting back since my hospital visit and still find it very uncomfortable and need the bathroom quite frequently.”