A Welsh council is secretly manoeuvring to sell land to Tesco for the development of a 28,000sq ft supermarket, in a case that raises serious questions about the transparency of local planning policy.
Conwy County Borough Council (CCBC) has already agreed in principle to sell council land in the market town of Llanrwst to Tesco, with proceeds from the sale earmarked for a waste transfer station.
On 9 July a CCBC officer emailed Llanrwst Town Council to request it “exclude the press and public” from a meeting two days later to discuss the exchange of contracts between CCBC and the developers for Tesco, Consolidated Property Group (CPG).
The developer had demanded to exchange contracts by mid August, following which a planning application would be made, added Bleddyn Evans, county valuer and asset manager at CCBC.
“If a contractual position is not secured, there is the risk that the proposals may not progress,” Evans wrote in the email, which was released to campaigners by a mole. “This time factor could be a negotiating position put forward by the developer, but appreciating the parlous state of the commercial property market, and the reduction in food store space uptake on a national basis, and made public by the main supermarkets, this is a situation which CCBC cannot take lightly.”
“The events of the 11th July were obviously a concern to anybody who feel strongly about transparency in local and national government.”
Guto Bebb, MP for Aberconwy
A spokesman for the Llanrwst campaign group, set up to oppose the plans, said: “We are shocked that Conwy council officials and town councillors have agreed to exclude the public and press from this meeting. Putting the interests of a non-elected multinational corporation before local democracy is not what residents elected town and county borough councillors to do.”
He said it was clear that Evans, “presumably acting under the instruction of Conwy council”, wanted the development of Tesco to go ahead and wished to agree to the demands to precipitate a contractual agreement within weeks, “for fear of otherwise losing the deal with Tesco”.
The spokesman added that county council officers had in February “categorically stated” that no contract would be agreed without first holding public consultation, which would take place at pre-planning stage.
A council resolution exists giving authority to progress with the disposal of the Plas yn Dre site to a developer and for associated works to be delivered and authorised, he said. “Why don’t the people of Llanwrst know about this?”
The campaigners argue that the council may be in breach of its duty to the public if it exchanges contracts before any planning consent, given that it is aware of Tesco’s intent, “but not formally in receipt of the details, nor have they released any details to the public domain, and therefore could be considered in pre-agreement of the Tesco proposals”.
Spar retailer Mike Skerrett, who trades nine miles away in Dolwyddelan, said the proposals went against the Local Development Plan, which states that the town is currently under-trading and that no new retail development is needed until 2020. Furthermore, a recent Llanrwst Vision survey shows that 74% of respondents support the sustainability of the area’s rural communities.
“We rely on a lot of tourist trade, but now they will get on the bus and go to Tesco,” said Mike. “But where’s the demand for a store this size? I’m sure Conwy council is putting pressure on local councillors and are riding roughshod over the whole town.”
Local MP Guto Bebb told C-Store that “the events of the 11th July…were obviously a concern to anybody who feel strongly about transparency in local and national government”.
“Suffice to say the local campaign group has my full support in their demands to ensure that the proposals and planning process at Llanrwst is open and subject to full public scrutiny,” he added.
Association of Convenience Stores public affairs director Shane Brennan said: “This does not look good. In order for the planning system to work local people have to have faith that developments like big supermarkets are subject to rigorous objective assessment by the local council.
“It’s hard not to conclude that this council has too much of a financial vested interest in this development to conduct a fair and objective planning process. There is a deeply worrying lack of transparency in this case. A case like this should automatically be referred to the relevant minister in the Welsh government to decide.”
A Conwy council spokeswoman said: “If contracts are exchanged, the developer will begin the planning process, and as part of this process the residents of Llanrwst will be given the opportunity to see the proposals and give their opinions before any application goes to the planning committee.
“The council would continue to own Plas yn Dre until the developer secured planning permission.”
To find out more about the campaign visit http://www.llanrwstcampaigngroup.blogspot.co.uk/