Cornwall Council will make a decision this week which will have a profound effect on the future of Cornwall. If they approve planning permission for the massive out-of-town retail development on 70 acres of green fields at Coyte Farm near St Austell, it will become Cornwall's 3rd largest retail centre.
If it goes ahead, it's forecast by the council's retail impact report that this scheme will reduce the trade in the local town centre of St. Austell by a huge 28% - the equivalent of £38million per year. It would also suck trade out of all towns within a 25-mile radius of the development. Any new jobs created by this out-of-town development would be offset by the resulting job losses in the surrounding towns.
There is no evidence that the Coyte Farm development has the majority of support amongst local people. According to Cornwall Council's planning register, public opinion is clearly against Coyte Farm with 80% of the public responses received by them (by email, letter and petition) objecting to the development. Coyte Farm is also opposed by the 3 elected local councils - St Austell, St Mewan & Pentewan - and the town's Chamber of Commerce which represents the local businesses.
Under the Localism Act, Coyte Farm could be rejected simply because the evidence is that the local community do not support it.
The proposed Coyte Farm development is the creation of Mercian Developments Ltd, a Midlands-based property developer, who have so far not invested in Cornwall nor employed anyone there. However, a consortium of local business and community leaders have created a alternative retail plan for the town called Together St Austell.
This plan involves all the town's major stakeholders and would bring new retailers, leisure facilities, business services and homes into the town centre, linked by shuttle buses to peripheral areas. The aim is to improve the local economy, create more jobs and totally revitalise the town. It would make use of brownfield sites around the town and also there would be some development on greenfield too (which I personally am not so keen about) but closer to the town and integrated into an overall vision for its future.
This plan has been created in response to the Government's Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce report 'Beyond Retail' which acknowledges the importance of town centres and how they can thrive in the future retail environment. The Together St. Austell plan has been endorsed by the government taskforce's chairman Mark Williams as an
"...innovative and cohesive strategy for the town that embraces so many different elements to promote growth and vitality for St Austell."
But this plan would be put in jeopardy if the massive out-of-town development at Coyte Farm goes ahead.
The modern retail landscape is changing rapidly with the internet becoming ever more important for retailers. It's apparent from the recent trading results of the high street chains that the stores prospering are the ones that have the best online offering such as John Lewis. Chains who haven't embraced the internet such as Marks & Spencer are suffering badly with continued poor results - which could be worrying for St Austell as M&S are a key retailer for the Coyte Farm scheme.
This changing retail environment is causing a general move by the major chains away from big stores to smaller outlets. There is a danger in the future that if it goes ahead, Coyte Farm Retail Park would become a white elephant with empty, derelict retail buildings on once-fertile green farmland. Whereas it is high streets just like St Austell's that will prosper in the new retail age.
But also there's a bigger picture here than just retail. Coyte Farm is on the rural and relatively undeveloped western side of St Austell. Phase 2 of the Coyte Farm development would be a housing estate with up to 300 homes built on green farmland. People in St Austell would be naïve to think that Coyte Farm will just be some nice shops for them. It's likely to be the start of a whole new suburb on the western side of St Austell. The villages of Trewoon, St Mewan & Polgooth would become urbanized like the Holmbush area on the eastern side of the town. The alternative Together St.Austell plan keeps development in the 'bowl' of St Austell closer to the town centre. This means that the villages around the west side of St Austell can stay villages and not be consumed by development.
There are clearly 4 reasons under planning law why Cornwall Council should reject the Coyte Farm development:
• the Government's planning policy is 'town centre first' and now that St. Austell has its own plan in place for the town centre, this has to be given priority.
• the forecast by the council's retail impact report of a 28% reduction in St. Austell town centre's trade contravenes the Goverment 'town centre first' planning policy.
• there is a clear majority of public opinion within the local community against Coyte Farm and, under the Localism Act, the development can't be approved.
• it is Government policy to protect the green belt and Coyte Farm Retail Park would mean building on 70 acres of St Austell's green belt.
The Coyte Farm question is potentially the biggest one that Cornwall faces this decade - does the county council reject Coyte Farm and instead support Together St. Austell, a local initiative created by the local business and community leaders that offers a clear vision for a successful future for the town? A vision that they have the expertise and funds to deliver. A vision that is the true embodiment of the 'Localism' that the government promotes.
Or do they allow a property developer from outside of the region to build an out-of-town shopping centre on a Cornish town's greenbelt that will ultimately destroy its town centre?
Let's hope they make the right decision for 'One & All'!