Peter Hough

Peter Hough
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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

What really happened when Sainsbury's £50m investment was thrown out by Labour and Tory councillors


So Sainsbury have finally confirmed that their plans for a £50m investment in Crosby Village will not be resurrected after they were rejected by Labour and Tory councillors in September 2010.

As a Victoria Ward LibDem member of the Planning Committee, and the party's Spokesperson for Regeneration, I warned at the time that there was no 'Plan B', and that if the plans were thrown out it was likely that the dilapidated shopping centre would be left to further decline. It gives me no pleasure to say to those who opposed it: 'I told you so'.

Now that I am no longer a council member, I want to set the record straight of what really happened the night that Crosby's fate was sealed.

After 18 months of public consultation, including several public meetings and two weekends where portacabins displaying the company's proposals were sighted in the shopping centre, we seemed to have a plan that was acceptable. The company had removed the filling station and replaced it with a building for public use, and agreed to fund pedestrian crossings and other infrastructure improvements. Many of the old tired looking shops would be replaced with modern units that local traders could operate from.

Then at the eleventh hour came someone named Jamie Scott with an online petition against the proposals. This got a lot of publicity in the local press, and the petition gained momentum apparently attracting around 7,500 signatures. Many of these were not local - one was even from New York! From this came an organisation called 'ABetterCrosby' which attracted a rag bag of people, some with genuine reservations about the plans, anti-supermarket activists and those who lived in never-never-land, viewing the past through rose tinted spectacles.

Scott was an architect who worked for a company called BDP based in Manchester. They have drawn up plans around the country for many clients, including Tesco. Ironically, their plans for a Tesco supermarket in London was rejected by the Mayor and described as 'God-awful' and 'characteristic of 1960s housing estates'.

Scott spearheaded the campaign against Sainsbury, and while Labour and Tory councillors dithered over how they were going to vote, we decided to back the plans as in our view they were a life-line for Crosby at a time of growing austerity. While most shop keepers were against the redevelopment because they feared they could not afford the increased rent for new, modern, bright trading units, there were a few like Paul Woods and Catherine Caddick who stuck their necks out. They realised that with the new shopping centre would come increased footfall, and more sales. They also realised this was the last chance saloon for the town, and without the investment the only way was down.

At the first planning committee meeting in August, the Labour/Tory alliance voted to defer a decision as they wanted more consultation!  Strangely, while we and the Tories had a face-to-face meeting with Sainbury's representatives, Labour refused to see them.

The deciding meeting in September was packed with not only genuinely concerned residents, but also rent-a-mob. Labour MP Bill Esterson was also there. The atmosphere was threatening, and when a council member spoke against the proposal, they were cheered, but when I or one of my LibDem colleagues spoke in favour, we were shouted down. The result was that Labour and Tories voted together to throw out the plans, and the LibDems (except for one abstention) voted for it. We lost the vote of course, and with that show of hands, the town lost its crucial life-line.

So why did the other two parties go against it? Was it the size of the new supermarket? Was it the aesthetics of the development? Strangely, three days before the vote, the Tory spokesperson contacted Sainsbury and told them they were going to support the plans. What happened then between Sunday and Wednesday for them to change their minds? Also, just minutes before the meeting began, the Labour spokesperson told his LibDem counterpart that they weren't sure which way to vote, and had decided to vote with whatever the Tories decided to do!

While I and my LibDem colleagues stuck our necks out to support what was best for Crosby, Labour (and probably the Tories too) cynically placed their bets where they thought the most votes lay for the elections next May.

After the public were cleared from the building, the planning officers, who had advised members to accept the plans, asked that we stay behind for a few minutes while the consequences of the committee's decision was discussed. Some Labour members were determined not to stay, and it was only when the chairman asked them to remain that they returned to their seats.

In six years on the council, I have never seen officers so angry. After they had spent 18 months negotiating with Sainsbury to get the best deal for the town - it had all been flushed down the pan. They warned that there had been no sound planning reasons for refusing the application, and if the company appealed, the decision would almost certainly be overturned, potentially costing council tax payers £180,000. It was also possible that Sainsbury would just turn their back on the town, and take their investment elsewhere - which is exactly what has happened.

I think the tone adopted by the officers shocked those who had thrown the investment out, because there wasn't a word from them, and they looked like naughty school children caught in the act by the headteacher. They also knew that every word was true.

I find it cynical then, that after Labour MP, Bill Esterson, who along with his councillor colleagues, had stabbed Crosby in the back, he should then adopt the posture of 'people's champion', and say he was now going to get Sainsbury to submit fresh plans 'within weeks' he claimed.

Sadly, everything I said, and my former colleagues Cllr Andrew Tonkiss and Anthony Hill said, has come to pass. ABetterCrosby should have called themselves AWorseCrosby, because that is what they have created. For them now to talk about getting fresh investors involved in the town is a smokescreen. Why haven't they done so in the two years since Sainsbury were kicked out? We're in a double-dip recession - wise up - that's why it was essential for the survival of Crosby Village to embrace Sainsbury's offer.


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