I said I would blog the reasons for my vote yesterday, so here goes.
The officer recommendation for today’s meeting was to approve the Tesco scheme and refuse the Sainsbury’s one. This was because of a retail assessment (which Councils are required to do for out-of-town supermarket applications to ensure the impact on Town Centres into account). That assessment basically said that because Whittlesey Town Centre would be severely affected by two out of town supermarkets and Tesco already have an approval for a store in Station Road, the committee was obliged to approve the Tesco site on Eastrea Road. Both Sainsbury and Co-op argued against the legality of this idea.
I have strong doubts about whether a Tesco Superstore is viable on Station Road in the event of any of the two sites along Eastrea Road being developed – and this was at the crux of the case I put forward tor today. I hope those that were there will confirm I was quite robust about this issue (and others); asking questions, challenging developers and officers and trying to ensure the right decision was made both in planning terms and in the interests of Whittlesey residents.
There were a couple of issues where, once a debate happened, I made my position clear. I said I found it difficult to give weight to some Draft plans that Fenland have produced but which are not yet approved – I believe that they are still in a position where they can be amended to react to any decisions such as the approval of a supermarket and/or country park, and also that I would not support an application that did not include an element of funding to mitigate the impact of supermarkets on Whittlesey Town Centre.
However, the crux of my argument was always that I questioned the premise of the officer recommendation that Tescos was the only option. As a result of this, where it came to a point that we were approaching a decision, a suggestion was made that we might want to examine this argument more deeply.
As I have said elsewhere, Planning is an evidence based process – and that means any committee decision has to be defendable at either planning appeal or in court, whilst I believe my argument to be right, based on strong knowledge of the situation on the ground, there was no evidence to support it. I therefore proposed that we defer a decision in order that this study be conducted, that proposal was approved by a majority.
Whilst I accept that some residents would have preferred a decision today, this is something that effects Whittlesey forever –any impact on Whittlesey Town Centre is there forever; it has to be right for Whittlesey, but defendable. There is an argument that the need for this could have been predicted and the work done before yesterday – but we were not in that position. It comes about because members, including myself, were not happy with what was being recommended to us, but recognised that in order for our case to be robust and defendable an evidence base is needed.
I want to follow this a bit deeper. If the planning committee’s decision is not robust and based on evidence then that increases the likelihood of either an appeal to the planning inspector or a court case (or both). Potentially the timescale for this to be all take place will be longer than the time it will take to get this survey don and make a more robust decision. It could also lead to Council Tax payers money being spent unnecessarily on expensive legal fees. Actually, my suspicion is that any final decision is likely to be made in the courts, but if that happens we can be more certain that the decision made by the committee is robust and defendable – it increases the likelihood of a strong, well informed local decision winning the day.
I think there are issues for everyone involved in this to reflect on today – and things may well change more substantially before the next committee. In particular, I would suggest that Tesco’s stance did nothing to endear them to Whittlesey people. They said they had a long term commitment to Whittlesey, but offered nothing to Whittlesey in return, in short they tried to force the issue that there was only one choice, irrespective of the fact that Whittlesey loses out on a vital piece of infrastructure as a result. Both Tesco and Sainsbury have all to play for and I will keep an open mind – as I am required to do. Unfortunately, it also means we will be sat around a table again in a few months’ time. Whilst I would have preferred that not to be the case, given the debate on the day, I believe a deferral was absolutely the right decision.