Stephen Gilbert MP
Submission to Strategic Planning Committee re Coyte Farm
To: Members of the Strategic Planning Committee,
Planning Application PA12/10096 – Coyte Farm, St Austell
I am writing to you in regard to the above planning application which, as you will know, is due to be considered by the Strategic Planning Committee next week.
This submission is made in my capacity as the Member of Parliament for St Austell. It is not intended to be political, nor is it intended to persuade you of my personal opinion, rather I am writing as a representative of my constituents to ensure that their views and concerns are considered as you decide on this proposal and cast your vote.
As you will be aware, the application for redevelopment of land around Coyte Farm has been the subject of much contentious debate across the St Austell area over the last 18 months or so. Indeed it is probably the single biggest planning issue on which I have received correspondence – totalling almost 400 individual emails and letters to date.
Those emails have detailed the full spectrum of local opinion – ranging from “I think it will be the best thing to happen to the area since Eden” to “It will be the death of St Austell”.
One thing remains true though – everyone, regardless of whether they support or oppose these plans, wants the best for St Austell. I am proud to call this town my home and I will continue to work with everyone involved to ensure that St Austell continues to grow and improve. Of course everyone will have different ideas about how to go about achieving that and I hope that you will give full consideration to that range of opinion as you set out to decide on this application.
In this submission, I intend to detail the main considerations in support of and opposed to the application. I will also include a selection of comments which I have received from constituents and will try to explain the positive and negative effects that would stem from the development going ahead as I see it.
Investment in St Austell
Everyone wants to see fresh investment in the town.
Many of those who support the application take that view because they want to see new opportunities for St Austell to grow and improve – they want the investment, the new retail offer and the job prospects.
Those who are opposed to the application do so primarily on grounds of its location and the fear of a negative impact on existing town centre stores – they are not opposed to the principle of the investment and most are just as keen to see new stores and new jobs open their doors for the benefit of the community, but would prefer an alternative site was considered.
It is, surely, a very welcome fact that – so soon after one of the deepest recessions of our generation – investment on such a scale is forthcoming in our community:
“It is fantastic that in this current economic climate industries are looking to invest in our local area. This can only be a good thing leading to more variety for consumers, more jobs for local people and greater opportunities for our young people to establish themselves as successful participants in our local community.”
But, as one constituent says:
“The majority of people voting for the Coyte Farm development wanted more choice. Their argument wasn’t about where the choice would be.”
There is very little doubt that approval of this application will lead to an increased retail spend across the wider local economy (I will comment later about the effect of lost trade to Truro and Plymouth) but opinion then divides over whether this will be to the detriment or to the benefit of the existing retail offer, especially within the existing town centre. Comments have included:
“This will help attract people to the area and also bring them into the town centre to do their shopping, helping local businesses thrive.”
“St Austell desperately needs an injection of life, jobs and large retail outlets.”
Finally while much of the investment debate has been centred around the retail offer contained in the proposals, it is also important to touch on the other investment benefits which are contained within the plan.
I have, rather notably, received no direct representations about the proposals for the Residential Care and Assisted Living elements of the plans, nor about the proposed improvements for the golf course, St Mewan Churchyard or St Mewan Primary School. It is my sense that these investments are generally welcomed and that the community are grateful for their inclusion in the plans.
During my election campaign in 2010 and subsequently as the local MP, I have fought to increase job opportunities within our community. Over that time, I have been proud of the fall in unemployment across the constituency from 5,000 to 3,400.
But, it is clear that there are still many people in our community who want to work but who cannot find suitable, year-round employment. Coyte Farm offers new employment prospects to those looking for work and I am certain that everyone in our community is keen to see that boost in job opportunities. One constituent said:
“The town needs economic growth, employment opportunities for our young people and to move with the times. With the amount of houses being built, this town can support a good retail industry.”
But, many do fear that the job opportunities created at Coyte Farm will be at the expense of others and will, in fact, simply be displacement of job opportunities from the town centre:
“The Coyte Farm development will not create new jobs; only cause job displacement due to the closure of businesses in St Austell’s Town Centre, unable to compete with the retail park.”
As the committee probe into the detail of this planning application, I would urge you to ask questions about the overall effect to employment and to ensure that job opportunities which are created do not simply come at the expense of jobs which are lost.
Expanding the Retail Offer
When White River Place opened its doors in 2009, I worked with residents across the community to mount a campaign to persuade big name stores to consider taking a unit there. The economic conditions were far from perfect, but we have since benefited from stores including TK Maxx and Wilkinsons setting up a home in our town.
However, compared to other Cornish towns and other shopping destinations in the South West, St Austell still could benefit from increased variety. Marks & Spencer is a store which is regularly cited as an example of the sort of thing our town needs. It has been a disappointment that they do not consider a unit within the town centre to be viable for their needs, but many argue that a unit in an out-of-town complex is better than nothing and that St Austell should welcome this approach with open arms.
One constituent has put the limited retail offer rather well in saying:
“As a town with a population of 34,700 we are woefully short of good retail choices for this area.”
But, there is a valid question to be asked as to whether this is the right sort of investment for a Cornish town, with constituents stating:
“It will have a negative effect on the town. Why should people choose to visit Cornwall for a holiday if it is just the same homogenised, concreted shopping centre that they can find in any other part of the UK?” and:
“If I think of a holiday in Cornwall, Coyte Farm’s massive retail park would be the last place I would want to go.”
In deciding on this application, I would urge you to give due consideration as to whether it is, as suggested above, in keeping with the wider community and whether it is a suitable proposal for this part of Cornwall.
Effect on St Austell Town Centre
At the heart of this debate has been the likely effect that the Coyte Farm development would have on the existing businesses in St Austell Town Centre and within the White River Place development.
There is a strong sense amongst my constituents that a huge amount of trade and custom from people living in the wider St Austell community is unnecessarily lost to Truro or Plymouth. One constituent stated:
“We already have an out of town shopping centre – it’s called Truro”
There is a sense that, if the Coyte Farm proposals are given the go-ahead, that the increased retail offer within the area will mean more people will choose to shop closer to home and benefit the local economy. Comments have included:
“People are still going to Truro. Let us have Coyte Farm, keep these shoppers in St Austell area and encourage them to spend their money in our town area.”
“It won’t stop me using St Austell town centre for everything I currently use it for, but it WILL stop me spending my money in Truro when I go there for everything we DON’T have here!”
It is right that the council and the developers have commissioned impact assessments to try, as best we can, to predict the impact that this scheme would have on the town centre.
However, I am sure that I am not alone in being concerned about the huge disparity between the headline figures from each of the assessments. I am not a planning expert and I, like you and the people of St Austell, will look towards the Retail Impact Assessments for an indication of the effect that Coyte Farm would have on our town.
The difference between Barton Willmore and GVA is staggering, and the uncertainties surrounding the Chase & Partners review is still a cause for concern. The St Austell Voice reported:
“The cumulative impact of Coyte Farm on town centre trade also differs between the assessments, with the GVA report suggesting a 20 per cent loss, Barton Willmore’s suggesting 7.84 per cent and Chase concluding 11 per cent.”
I believe that serious questions must be asked over the disparity between these figures. It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that they cannot all be right and it is clear that the difference between trade diversion between those reports would vary the overall impact of Coyte Farm significantly.
As a Parliamentary Candidate, I was delighted to work alongside Matthew Taylor and the old Restormel Borough Council as they secured backing for the White River Place development. It was, and still is, a success for our town which has, given the state of the national economy at the time of opening, done remarkably well.
It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that many people would see a decision to approve permission for Coyte Farm as undermining that investment:
“The public investment in St Austell Town Centre over the past few years has been considerable. This public money is being put at risk in favour of a large out of town development that offers little community nourishment or sustainable development.”
This is a view shared by some of the retailers occupying units in White River Place. One email from a representative of TK Maxx concludes that:
“Granting consent to Coyte Farm will inevitably dilute town centre footfall, leading to a downward spiral of reduced retail and leisure spend and increased vacancy rates.”
Another, written on behalf of Wilkinsons echoed these comments:
“We have no doubt that this will be to the serious detriment of St Austell Town Centre, which will deteriorate further, voids will increase and it will very quickly lose the appeal, vibrancy and economic success that this historic town deserves and which retailers like Wilkinson are working so hard to achieve.”
It’s not just the existing retail providers who share this view. Comments made on behalf of one of the major leisure providers within the town centre said:
“It has the potential to hugely deplete footfall and business levels. In the current climate, as small as a 2% decrease could be fatal to us and I’m sure other businesses.”
I believe that this last comment, and the potential effect of such a small decrease in footfall for a leisure provider, is an important one to single out. The retail impact assessments are primarily concerned with the effect on retail and, in any event, suggest a much higher impact than at 2% as suggested could be “fatal”.
Smaller independent retails tend to say the same, with one stating:
“I feel this will result in a loss of trade as customers will only go out of town & not come into the town centre to shop. This will also result in a loss of jobs as stores close as well as a complete loss of community spirit within the town.”
However, while the comments from TK Maxx, Wilkinsons and others have been prominent in the media and will, I am sure, be reflected further in comments made by others on this application, it is important to recognise that not all businesses share this view and a number are supportive of the proposal. One local businessman emailed me to say:
“It is so important that you as our MP realise that the silent business community supports this project wholeheartedly, it will not mean that demise of the White River area, in-fact we believe it will enhance St Austell as a major shopping destination.”
There does appear to be a pragmatic approach amongst many of the local businesses who recognise the wider impact for the local economy and opportunity across St Austell:
“As the owner of a business in the town centre, I am very keen to see the range of retail facilities in St Austell expanded in order to keep jobs in the town, to keep wealth in the town and to allow the local businesses here to expand in response to the increased spending in the town.”
Indeed, if the committee is minded to approve the scheme, then I would urge you and your colleagues to take note of this comment and consider ways which Cornwall Council could ensure that those behind Coyte Farm and those established local businesses are able to work together to ensure the delivery of this project for the benefit of the wider community:
“I currently run one of the large retail outlets in the town centre and feel that if it is done correctly it would only help the area in terms of increased trade and visitors to St Austell ... I feel that this development should compliment and not compete with the town ... if it goes ahead, it must be done correctly with the input of the local businesses.”
Many (although, not all) of the comments from local businesses, above, have stemmed from a business survey I conducted in October 2013. In that survey, which was sent to all businesses in the St Austell area, I asked for general comments and asked the simple question ‘All things considered, are you in support of or opposed to the Coyte Farm proposals?’
The returns made for very interesting reading, and I was rather surprised to see how evenly opinion was divided amongst the business community in response to the simple support/oppose question. Of the businesses who responded:
45% - Oppose Coyte Farm
43% - Support Coyte Farm
6% - Unsure
A common theme in comments from existing businesses located in the town centre was about the cost of parking – 78% of local businesses who responded to the survey said that the cost of parking was too high.
This feeling is backed up by comments from local residents:
“If the parking charges were more flexible and cheaper then people will go into the town as well as going for their groceries and clothing to Coyte Farm.”
“If you don’t want St Austell town to continue to die, make the car parks (or at least one of them) free.”
I would, therefore, like to take this opportunity to thank Metric and Mercian for their response to this and for offering, as part of the Coyte Farm application, a proposed free shuttle bus between Coyte Farm and the town centre. This pre-emptively addresses the plea of another of my constituents:
“If these major retailers are permitted to develop out of town sites, it should be a condition that they assist or help to promote footfall and increase trade for small businesses.”
The bus proposal strikes me as a fair and considered approach which would go some of the way to addressing these local concerns.
Effect on Outlying Villages
Much of the public debate has been dominated by discussion of the effect on St Austell town. But, there are a number of concerns regarding the effect that the proposal may have on outlying villages (many of which are closer to Coyte Farm than those within the town).
Concerns have been expressed regarding the impact of the development itself, the risks stemming from flooding and traffic and the creation of an ‘urban-sprawl’.
I have already detailed the concerns regarding retail impact in St Austell Town Centre, but it is important to also recognise the potential threat to local stores in outlying villages:
“The developers have not considered the detrimental effect on the villages of Polgooth, Stocker & Trewoon which could possibly lose the village store in each village.”
You will be aware of the concerns raised by English Heritage regarding the effect on the area around St Mewan Church. This concern has been shared by my constituent:
“The sight line & silhouette of such buildings entering from the A390 will be a blot on the landscape. The existing St Mewan Church and grounds will be swamped by this monstrosity.”
While one resident of Sticker also said:
“The proposal would lead to previously private areas being overlooked and there would be unacceptable intrusion in the form of noise nuisance, general disturbance, odour etc.”
A further prominent concern expressed by residents of the local villages is that of traffic. Many of you will be aware of the existing strain on the A390 which passes right through St Austell – linking Truro to the west and St Blazey to the east – and takes the strain of heavy traffic along the southern end of the town accessing the existing supermarkets, petrol stations and retail units along that road. Constituents have commented:
“The existing A390 from St Mewan through to St Blazey is already congested, especially in the tourist season.”
“The roads, especially in the summer, are already heavily used in this area and the existing road network could not possibly support this development.”
There have also been concerns raised by local parents who fear for the safety of children arriving and departing from St Mewan School:
“Speaking as a resident of Polgooth and parents of children that attend St Mewan School, I have fears about safety due to increased traffic to Coyte Farm via Tregongeeves Lane. This lane has no footway and is used regularly for walking young children to and from school.”
Finally, residents in those local villages are concerned about the risk of flooding which is posed by the development. As you may know, flooding has affected that part of Cornwall on a number of occasions. Serious flooding from the stream in the mid 1990’s is still in many people’s minds and smaller localised incidents which have occurred in the last couple of years are continuing to worry many that further development will likely exacerbate this problem.
Specific comments from residents have included:
“When rain falls, it all pours from the fields and down into Polgooth Stream. Adding hard standing car parks with the proposal leaves genuine fears that Polgooth stream will flood again as the flood risks carried out are insufficient.”
“It will cause major drainage problems to the area by covering green land to stop natural seepage through soil. Increasing run off which will make the situation at Pentewan and Mevagissey even worse.”
As you consider this application, I would urge you to give thought to those two issues: traffic and flooding – consider whether the area is able to cope with this extra development, the increase in persons using the area, and the environmental impact it will have.
Preventing an “Urban-Sprawl”
A number of constituents have expressed their concern and dismay that this proposal has come forward for a greenfield site in this specific location. Comments have included:
“Coyte Farm is a huge development on a greenfield site – there are other brownfield sites available - why not use them?”
“The area is full of brownfield former china clay sites which could be made more suitable – there is no need to carve up A1 agriculture land.”
“We are in danger of spoiling the very landscape that makes Cornwall beautiful.”
But, it is not just the net loss of agriculture or greenfield land which is concerning many – especially those living in the smaller nearby villages:
“Breaking into the green belt from the town is a disaster and will lead to suburban sprawl across productive farmland.”
Residents of the outlying villages of Sticker, Polgooth, Trewoon, St Mewan, Treloweth and even Trewiddle & Tregorrick are, understandably, concerned that the development will either directly – or through future infill development in years to come – mark the death of their village identity, resulting instead in an urban sprawl stretching from the very east to the very west of the wider St Austell area:
“On the other side of town, St Austell is already creeping towards Penwithick. If Coyte Farm is developed, it will then eventually creep toward Trelowth/Polgooth. St Austell will end up being a sprawling urban area with no centre and no identity.”
“The village of Trewoon would be ruined as a country village, instead it would just be an extension of the town with this development, and beautiful countryside views would be ruined.”
One constituent’s experience of living near a similar development in north Bristol is a reflection of this:
“I used to live very near the Cribbs Causeway development in north Bristol and have experienced at first-hand how that ruined the small towns around, meant ever increasing housing and even more retail development until north Bristol is one huge linked site with what is recognised as one of the worst traffic problems in the west.”
It is important that everyone involved in this application – the developers, the planners and the councillors – remember that the affects will reach much further than St Austell town, they will extend (and perhaps in some ways be most strongly felt) in the rural villages on the outskirts whose entire identity may be lost as a result.
The Changing Face of the High Street
I do believe that, as a society, our shopping habits are changing – and have done dramatically over the last ten years. The rise in online shopping, growth of the supermarket and decline of the traditional local shop has already led to a very different look and feel for our high streets (both here in Cornwall and further afield) to the way things were a couple of decades ago.
The comments of those across the local community reflect this change:
“I now have to buy lots of things on the internet instead of spending in Cornwall; I would love my money to be spent in local shops that provide jobs for people.”
This trend appears to be here to stay and it will be the high streets which change and adapt which survive. As one constituent put it:
“With the changing way that consumers shop, now that online shipping is on the increase, we need to establish a town centre that can weather these changes and still thrive.”
With that in mind, there are those who view the Coyte Farm proposals as an opportunity rather than a threat:
“Coyte Farm is a gift of an opportunity for St Austell Town Centre to market itself as a place full of independent shops to the increased number of shoppers who will come back to the area” and another saying “We should let the town centre continue to specialise in niche, unique and high-value shops”
“Town centres are now places for leisure and niche shopping. We need to work on this and make parking and bus services between the town and Coyte Farm free so that it is the shopping destination of choice instead of the poor relation it is at present.”
It is also important for us to remember that out of town shopping has already had an impact on our town:
“Out of town shopping came to St Austell when Asda opened up at the former rugby club site which affected several shops in the town.”
While another has praised the effect of White River Place in turning this trend around:
“We saw this when the Tesco store was built at Holmbush. For a while, St Austell was deteriorating into a ghost town. Since the opening of White River Place, people have started shopping in the town again, and community events have life and vibrance.”
There is no doubt that the White River Place development, along with St Austell Chamber of Commerce, St Austell BID and the new St Austell Town Council, are already having a positive impact on our town.
I hope that, whatever the decision of the Strategic Planning Committee, those groups – along with Cornwall Council, the local community and Coyte Farm (if approved) will work together going forward to make the most of all future opportunities for our town.
It is clear that the difference of opinion on this issue is strong, and views are forcefully held on both sides of the debate. Since my election in 2010, I have not known a local issue to be so divisive or so evenly balanced.
In total, I have received 397 representations from my constituents about this issue. Of that, 258 have been supportive of the proposal, while 124 have been opposed to the plans (a further 15 were either undecided or unattributable).
There is, rightly, overwhelming support across the town for more investment in St Austell, more jobs and more retail choice – on that everyone can agree. The key disagreement comes on the location and scale of this application.
There is also a completely understandable cynicism across communities around St Austell about plans to deliver additional opportunities within the town centre from a local community that has been jaded by too many false dawns, too many undelivered promises and is suspicious of the ability to deliver further such promises.
It’s clear to me that there is wide-spread and real support for this application among the “silent majority” who see it as a real chance, indeed perhaps a final chance, to bring retail choice, investment and jobs to our town.
Those opposing the application argue that, in time, the same type of opportunities can be delivered within the town centre, or closer to its periphery, and in addition to the potential damage to the town centre they point to the loss of green field land and the threat of urban sprawl as key reasons to oppose this application.
Without the help of a crystal ball, it is simply impossible to predict with any certainty what the impact of this development will be on our town. Indeed, I view this proposal as a great risk for St Austell but, without taking big risks, big rewards will never follow.
On a personal level, I continue to have significant reservations about this application. But, as the Member of Parliament, I would point the committee to the wide-spread public support that has been secured that suggests a sizeable proportion of St Austell are prepared to accept the potential risks associated with this proposal in order to secure the potential rewards.
It is not for me to tell Cornwall Councillors which way to vote on this application. It is for you to decide; in considering the balance of argument, whether this is a risk worth taking.
I hope that you will give full and proper consideration to all the concerns raised in this submission and I wish you the best as you take your decision.
STEPHEN GILBERT MP
St Austell & Newquay