Westover Ward councillors Brian Smedley and Kathy Pearce have called for a total review of Sedgemoor Planning policy for the Town Centre following today’s disastrous split vote at the Development Committee which saw members divide evenly and the Chairman’s casting vote turn down the project. Cllr Smedley has written to Sedgemoor expressing his concern at the present policy and say’s he will ask the Corporate Scrutiny committee to review the Planning policy at it’s next meeting.
The planning application from SRL Promotions for a Jazz-Blues Cafe on the site of the old Bridgwater Bookshop at 18 High Street was put to the Planning committee in October and was supported by Councillors from the Westover Ward which includes the Town Centre and by the Bridgwater Retail Initiative. Bridgwater Town Council had raised no objection to the proposal at it’s own planning panel and so it was all down to Sedgemoor District Council’s Development Committee to give the go ahead or to reject.
Planning Policy D13 Revisted
At the October meeting the issue of Planning Policy D13 was key. Under this the premises in question were classified as being in the primary retail area and therefore should be for A1 (retail) use therefore the Jazz Cafe should seek other sites in the town and the particular site advertised for a longer period in order to attract the required retail usage.
“The trouble with this Policy was that in fact there weren’t other sites suitable for the Jazz Cafe and there was no one coming forward with any other offers therefore the town would face yet another empty shop for a lengthy period and at the same time miss the opportunity to accept an offer for some entrepreneurs who were prepared to invest in the town.” explained Cllr Smedley, who spoke at the October meeting urging support for the Jazz cafe. “The result was that the committee deferred the decision for a month in order to get more information about the marketing and about other sites.”
During the following weeks, agent Lyndon Brett and Sedgemoor’s own Valuer Tim Mander worked hard to put the case for acceptance of the Jazz Cafe and to interpret the Policy more flexibly. At the same time Sedgemoor’s Planning Officers stuck to their guns and continued to recommend refusal on the basis of the application being ‘contrary to policy D13’.
“At this stage the position of the ward members was crucial and ourrefusal to accept the Planning Officers decision meant that the application had to come back to the full Development Committee for a vote.” Said Cllr Smedley “This meant the applicants could resubmit and be supported by the marketing information report which clearly demonstrated why this Jazz Cafe should be supported in this instance.”
At the committee meeting of 26th November Lyndon Brett presented a full report including the complete marketing history, listing why all the other sites weren’t suitable and why it was crucial not to have yet another town centre void. A Bridgwater Retail Initiative report showed that while the National average for voids was 14% Bridgwater was on 16%. Lyndon Brett added “the evidence clearly shows that the Council’s policy on controlling uses within the High Street is not working, nor is it advancing the BRI initiative to revitalise the Town Centre.”
Knocking on Tesco’s door
Lyndon Brett also pointed to the knock on effect of the Tesco Northgate development and the resulting pressure on the Town Centre where “retail space would be limited” in comparison to what would be on offer next to Tesco’s .
Cllr Smedley added, “The key to the problem now is that Tesco has changed the ballgame for the Town Centre and to expect sizeable High street retailers to even look at an area with diminishing footfall and without the floor space required means we need to adapt our policy to encourage a more mixed and experimental use of what space we have and that the worse thing we can do is leave them empty so that they get eventually end up as bookies or charity shops. The main worry now is that retailers will leave the centre for edge of town locations- a prime example of this recently is Argos. This ‘doughnut effect’ is a reality and we have to find ways to reverse it or we’ll just have a massive hole in the middle.”
Whilst Planning officers continued to hold out for an outright rejection based on the rigid application of D13 even they began to offer a way out by pointing to 3 key exceptions 1)that the property had been marketed but with no success 2)that there were no other suitable sites in the Town Centre and 3) Policy D11 could be met which supported a diverse town centre economy.
The 15 Committee members from all over Sedgemoor District debated the pro’s and cons of the case and ended up split 7.7 leaving Chairman Bob Filmer (Con, Brent Knoll) to cast his second and deciding vote, rejecting the Jazz Cafe.
We Better Talk This Over
“To say people were angry is an understatement. SRL promotions already make a big contribution to the cultural life of this town and were prepared to take a big risk to support our town centre and members rejected this in favour of an empty shop and a failing policy.” Said Cllr Smedley “Social media instantly went viral with people expressing outrage at the Council’s decision, setting up petitions and urging SRL to resubmit and not accept the verdict”.
Cllr Smedley has urged SRL to resubmit and has called on the Corporate Scrutiny committee, of which he is the Chairman, to urgently look at Sedgemoors Town Centre Planning policy to ensure it is fit for purpose in the new circumstances that Bridgwater finds itself in.