In my previous HuffPost article about the proposed massive out-of-town retail development at Coyte Farm in Cornwall, I focused on the environmental impact of this controversial plan to concrete over 70 acres of farmland in order to build a Sainsburys Superstore, retail park, care home and pub. A plan that would create Cornwall's fourth largest retail centre on a greenfield site.
In this follow-up article I'm looking at the impact that this development would have on the town centre of the local town, St. Austell, if it goes ahead. I have been given access to an independent review commissioned by the local planning authority Cornwall Council. This report was produced by GVA, a leading independent planning consultancy, and it shows that the impact of the Coyte Farm development on St Austell's town centre would be absolutely devastating. This report was completed in January 2013 but has not been officially released by Cornwall Council yet.
St. Austell is Cornwall's largest town and has been a market town since mediaeval times. Its prosperity came from its china clay mining industry. However there has been a major downturn in this mining industry in recent years that has led to mass redundancies and a high level of unemployment in the town. St. Austell has also struggled to attract the big high street retailers who have tended to establish themselves in Truro, Cornwall's capital city, instead.
In an attempt to boost retail investment and increase shopper spending, St. Austell's town centre was redeveloped and re-launched 4 years ago as the White River Place shopping centre. It is now under new owners who bought White River Place last year and are very keen to make St. Austell's town centre a success again.
However the findings of Cornwall Council's independent review show that if the Coyte Farm out-of-town development goes ahead, St Austell will never get the chance to have a thriving town centre again. The report finds that the town centre's retail income from shoppers would fall by over a quarter - a massive 27% - and that because of this huge loss of their revenue 'a number of retailers could face viability issues going forward'. In other words, if Coyte Farm opens, a lot of shops in St. Austell will close down.
Furthermore, it would also have a significant negative impact on retail investment in St. Austell as new shops would be much less likely to open and as the town centre declined, there would be less investment in public infrastructure too.
The report's findings show that Coyte Farm could not be recommended for approval under the Government's current planning guidelines - the National Planning Policy Framework. This policy focuses on a 'town centre first' approach for retail development. Its guidance is that sites in town centres should be developed first before looking at out-of-town developments like Coyte Farm. It also requires that an impact test is carried out to find out the effect that an out-of-town development would have on the local town centre's retail trade and future investment.
Cornwall Council has carried out this test with GVA's independent review and, as we have seen, Coyte Farm fails this test miserably. Its negative impact on St. Austell would be far beyond the limits that the National Planning Policy Framework could accept. The Framework is clear on this - 'where an application fails to satisfy the test, it should be refused'.
However the damage that Coyte Farm could do to St. Austell's town centre has already started. The decision on their planning application was originally meant to be heard last March but the developers - Metric Property, Mercian Developments and Sainsbury's Supermarkets - have been formally requesting to Cornwall Council that the decision is delayed. This means that the planning decision now won't be made until October 2013 at the earliest. These delays in the planning process are putting a cloud over St. Austell town centre's future as new retailers are unlikely to invest in the town while there is concern that an out-of-town development could take so much of the town's retail income away.
Hopefully when the decision is finally made, Cornwall Council will follow the recommendations of their own independent review and refuse planning permission for the Coyte Farm out-of-town retail development.