One of the critical aspects of the decision on Wednesday is what is called the sequential test. This is, basically, an assessment of sites for retail development that is required under the National Planning Policy Framework and was a crucial part of PPS4, which is the policy predecessor of the NPPF for retail sites. It is important people understand that the sequential test is there to protect town centres, and there is some evidence that it has had some success in that.
The sequential test is about finding the best location for supermarkets, it requires that developers and policies look at town centre locations first, edge of town next and then locations out of town.
As far as Whittlesey is concerned, the only potential edge of centre location was the Syers Lane site – which was refused planning permission, and it is difficult to see how the issues which were used to refuse permission could be overcome (although the decision was, surprisingly, never tested at appeal). So when the Sainsbury and Tesco supermarkets along Eastrea Road came forward (let’s ignore Station Road for now!!) an assessment would have been needed around the sequential test.
In the current situation, it seems that the Tesco site along Eastrea Road passes the sequential test, whilst the Sainsbury site fails; this is where I am struggling a bit. The access to these two sites is from virtually the same point on the A605. Having re-examined the plans this afternoon I realised that, because of the way the two schemes are laid out there is a difference of about 70m between the pedestrian accesses for Sainsbury and Tesco (this is crudely measured – but effectively, the distance from Cemetery Road roundabout to the front door of the proposed Tesco is about 1.36km via the pedestrian route, and for Sainsbury it is 1.43km). That is based on the access plans submitted by Tesco – if the Larkfleet access is used then Tesco will be slightly further away than that 1.36km (as I said this is very crudely measured – but whatever the detailed measurements, the difference is minimal).
Whilst I have always said that the impact on the Town Centre is important, I am struggling to see how that difference of just 70m makes any meaningful difference. Then think about the benefits I talked about yesterday and about how Sainsbury and the Country Park could draw people into the Town with the right sort of link advertising and a package to encourage Town Centre shopping (which they are offering). From what I can see it is only Sainsbury that are offering a half hourly bus service from Whittlesey Town Centre to their store – that in itself will provide an incentive for people to visit the Town Centre on their way to shopping at Sainsbury. Which do you think is more important – 70metres, or a better package to protect the Town Centre?
Here is what Para 27 of the National Planning Policy Framework says about the sequential test: “When considering edge of centre and out of centre proposals, preference should be given to accessible sites that are well connected to the town centre. Applicants and local planning authorities should demonstrate flexibility on issues such as format an scale”
The more I look at these two proposed sites the more the recommendation about the sequential test confuse me; the requirement for the test is laid out under a section of the NPPF called “ensuring the vitality of town centres”. In my opinion, the question that needs to be asked on Wednesday, is which of the applications is most likely to ensure the vitality of Whittlesey Town Centre, I’m pretty sure that’s what the courts will look at.