Leighton Buzzard can follow Dunstable’s example where a thriving retail park can help boost town centre trade.
That was the view expressed at Wednesday’s meeting of Central Beds Council’s development management committee when councillors approved the appearance and scale of the buildings, landscaping and site layout of the Claymore Group’s retail park for Grovebury Road.
Campaigners fighting the scheme had stated they didn’t want Leighton turning into another Dunstable, whose town centre, they claimed, had suffered as a result of the White Lion Retail Park.
But Cllr Nigel Young said the reverse was true.
He said: “The White Lion was completely derelict as little as a year ago. It was supported by two restaurants, which remain, and a Halfords. It had a void of 60% and in the last year we have loosened the restrictions [on what goods can be sold].
“Since we have done that we are lucky enough to have a large Next, supported by a Costa and Brantano, Laura Ashley expanded their range, and TK Maxx.”
He said extreme sports firm Decathlon was also in the process getting planning permission, adding: “It is a thriving retail park now, which has sustainable transport links to a town centre which has now got very few unoccupied units in Dunstable.
“Of those most of those are not occupiable in that they they were falling down, and that’s particularly on High Street South. We have succeeded in making Dunstable a rapidly becoming a thriving market town, albeit with a great big road running through it – but we are going to sort that out shortly.”
Town and CBC councillor Amanda Dodwell said she would “go out on a limb” and give her backing to the Claymore scheme.
“There has been some vocal opposition to the original outline application with much concern over the impact on the town centre. This development and the balance of stores on there will encourage residents to shop in the town centre. Many of our town centre retail outlets are specialist shops.”
She explained that when she had wanted to buy a sofa she had needed to venture to Milton Keynes or Aylesbury, which also had other attractive retail and food establishments to draw spending power.
She said: “A wider choice in the town, albeit at the out of town retail park, then people will stay in town and are more likely to use the town centre.
“I am sure it will encourage people to shop in the parish and in turn have a positive impact on the town centre.”
Campaigner Colin Ashby, a retailer for 40 years, said developers understate retail impact and claimed the park would have an £8m annual retail impact on the town centre and predicted there would be 40 net job losses.
He described town centre retail in Leighton as “vulnerable” and if they opened out the conditions of what could be sold it would have more impact. He added: “The people of Leighton Buzzard don’t want retail parks.”
Cllr Clive Palmer speaking on behalf of Leighton-Linslade Town Council accepted that there was no point questioning the validity of a retail park on the site as that had already been accepted at the outline planning permission had been granted.
But he said the council wished to maximise the economic benefits to the town and its people.
He pointed that the reduced car parking was concerning, that a drive-through restaurant would create more traffic than a pub/restaurant in the original outline plans, and that there were concerns about the proposed size of the retail units which had shrunk from totalling 8,037sq metres to 7,258sq metres.
A CBC planning officer however said that although car parking fell short of current CBC design guide, Claymore had optimised parking given its work on landscaping the site and meeting the operating needs of retailers. He said under the outline approval a drive-thru and less retail floor space was acceptable.
Cllr Charles Gomm expressed fears about car parking capacity and whether there was sufficient space both now and in the future.
Cllr Tom Nichols spoke about traffic, stating: “I am acutely aware of how locked up Leighton Buzzard can be. While welcoming employment I am concerned that a road that is already very busy will continue to get busy.”
Cllr David Bowater said one retailer he had just bought a sofa from viewed the retail park as a “good thing”. “He welcomes this as he thinks it will bring more people into the town centre.”
Cllr Bowater added: “The sooner [it is built] the better. Let’s get on with it. There have been far too many delays which has caused retailers to pull out. If we don’t get on with this the town is going to die.”
Councillors voted 12-0 in favour, with one abstention.