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Delivering the final death blow to Farnborough town centre

Keith Parkins | 02.07.2004 15:09 | Analysis | Globalisation | Social Struggles

On the the last day of June 2004, Rushmoor Borough Council planning committee met and dealt the final death blow to Farnborough town centre. We were told a superstore is in the 'public interest' and can override human rights and thus it was okay to kick people out of their homes to make way for a car park for the superstore, that a superstore would revitalise a dying town centre.

Over five years ago, KPI (a Kuwaiti-financed property company) bought Farnborough town centre. They have since laid waste to the town centre. Most of the retailers have been driven out of businesses, many into bankruptcy, including long established family businesses. Those that remain hover on the verge of bankruptcy, or are chain stores and cross-subsided by other stores. Each year, takings and profits (what profits many would say) spiral ever downwards, whilst costs rise.

Two new eyesores have been erected at the southern end and middle of the town centre. They were supposed to attract up-market retailers, instead were used to relocate existing retailers. The prime site, at the southern end, referred to as the gateway to a new retail experience (although no longer referred so) was taken by two charity shops. The disabled parking spaces at the rear of these, only temporary lost whilst the units were built (or so we were told), have not been replaced, they have been lost to private parking for the overpriced shoebox flats above the retail units. We lost our sole remaining independent bakery.

Current plans are to demolish the entire northern half of the town centre, replace with a superstore (possibly Sainsbury's) and demolish an estate of 28 maisonettes for a car park for the superstore. This is called 'sustainable development'. 28 maisonettes arranged around a grassy area, described by one of the residents as 'a quiet oasis'.

A meeting was held of Rushmoor planning committee on Wednesday evening 30 June 2004 to consider an outline planning application for town centre demolition and construction of the superstore.

Prior to this, 'minded to grant outline' was granted November 2002. This was followed by an unlawful granting of outline planning consent by the head of planning and committee chairman meeting in secret session behind closed doors. They did not formally inform the committee until some months later. A judge granted leave to take a Judicial Review, which forced the Council to quash the planning consent already granted, rather than have their decision making process questioned and exposed in court. In the meantime, Rushmoor decided to grant Compulsory Purchase Orders on behalf of the developer, for a development that had not yet received full planning consent, thus prejudicing the application, and the developer applied for Stopping Orders (Highway Closures) to the Secretary of State for a development that did not have full planning consent.

On the 2 June 2004, the committee was again considered the application, and with one abstention, were 'minded to grant outline'. Several of the committee had prejudiced their position beforehand, three of the committee were board members of Pavilion, a housing association which owns the maisonettes, and were due to make a few million pounds by selling their land to the developer.

The agenda was issued a few days before meeting. It was unusual in a number of respects.

The agenda contained a discussion of human rights. This was a first and its importance cannot be overstated. It tilts the planning process in favour of local communities.

It was admitted in the agenda that the human rights of the residents of Firgrove Court (the 28 maisonettes to be demolished for a car park for the superstore) had been negated on at least two counts. But these could be overridden in the 'public interest', and to demolish their homes for a superstore was in the public interest. Furthermore, to build a superstore would revitalise a dying town.

The superstore will face out of the town overlooking its own car park. In effect, an out-of-town superstore on the edge of a town centre. Shoppers will drive in, shop, then drive back out. The location and orientation of the superstore is designed to minimise 'leakage' into the rest of the town.

The car park has 277 car parking spaces. Redevelopment will destroy over 200 car parking spaces in the existing multi-story car park, leading to a net gain of only 57 car parking spaces – 28 maisonettes are to be destroyed for 57 car parking spaces, ie 2 car parking spaces for each home destroyed.

The developer claims the superstore will be Sainsbury's, they have plastered the town with posters showing it to be Sainsbury's (the same posters claim they have planning consent which is not true). The Council planning agenda claimed it was Sainsbury's. Sainsbury's are remarkably silent on the matter.

The day of the planning meeting Sainsbury's head office told me 'we have no involvement with this development'. They went on to tell me it was a KPI development, and the only discussion with KPI was the possibility of a lease.

The agenda says Debenhams are expanding. Two years ago, Debenhams stated at a meeting of retailers that they were considering pulling out of Farnborough as the retail situation was so dire. The retail climate has considerably worsened since then. I had a management meeting with Debenhams the day before the planning meeting. They said they were not expanding.

As the planning meeting was about to start, the head of planning went over to the public gallery and ingratiated himself with representatives from KPI. It said it all really.

At the start of the meeting, the Borough Solicitor went around the table and asked each councillor in turn if they had an interest to declare. This was another first as it had never been done before. They had to state in detail what their interest was. Two of the councillors declared they were on the board of Pavilion (at the previous meeting they declared they had a connection with Pavilion but not what that connection was, although the minutes falsely records they stated they were on the board). Neither of these councillors stated they were under investigation by the Standards Board for England, which is in itself an interest which has to be declared. They both stated that being on the board of Pavilion was not prejudicial to the planning application from KPI!

As an aside I would note that Pavilion are trying to sell their land to KPI, and without the land, the development cannot proceed (at least that was the view of the planning official). Thus Pavilion are not only critical to this planning being given the go-ahead, but they are also beneficiaries if this application goes ahead. The main discussion at the meeting, what little discussion there was, centred around Firgrove Court.

The round table declaration degenerated into farce. One councillor, Don Cappleman, declared as a vested interest, that he had received a telephone call from 'a certain individual', and that the same certain individual, had sent him an e-mail. Several other councillors, who had clearly been orchestrated beforehand, also parroted that they too had received an e-mail from a certain individual.

The 'certain individual' was myself. Cappleman was telephoned the weekend before the meeting, and my comments to the council summarised. Cappleman, an Aldershot councillor, was asked to look around the town centre and talk to a few people so he could understand the damage being caused by the developers. He refused. He did not see it as his role to talk to people and find out what was going on or what people wanted!

The e-mail, was a copy of my submission to planning officials with a request that it be circulated to all committee members. Attached was a copy of the excellent Corporate Watch publication, What's Wrong With Supermarkets, which exposed the lie that superstores are in the 'public interest' or revitalised town centres.

The chairman parroted what was by now becoming a boring refrain, that he too had received an e-mail from a certain individual and that he too had received a phone call. He then detailed at some length the procedures he claimed to have explained to me for submitting comments to the committee via officials.

No such conversation ever took place. I spoke to the chairman the day before the committee met. I explained my concerns, he patiently listened, and asked that I put my concerns in writing. I said no problem, that as he was meeting with planning officials that afternoon, I would drop my comments into the planning office and ask the officials to pass on my comments. I told him that I had already passed my comments to the officials (something he would already be aware of if he had read my e-mail to officials of which he had a copy) and that officials never passed on my comments. I also added, that I had received a letter from planning officials the previous Thursday and had been trying to contact officials including leaving messages to contact me. The letter, in addition to advising me of the meeting, also said I may wish to speak to the meeting. Next day I spoke to the chairman again. I asked if he had received my comments, had he read them, and did he wish me to elaborate on or explain further any of the points I had raised. He was abrupt to the point of rudeness, refused to even comment on whether he had received my comments let alone read them, then put the phone down on me.

It would appear that the local community trying to raise their concerns on detrimental unwanted developments that will destroy their town is now classed as a vested interests which must be declared and recorded.

Not a single councillor mentioned briefings by KPI as a vested interest.

The Council receives regular briefings from KPI and has done so for at least five years.

The retailers have had one meeting over two years ago with the Borough chief executive Andrew Lloyd. When they did not say what he wanted to hear, that they were not in favour of the KPI plans for the town, he refused to have any further meetings with the retailers. Since that meeting most of the retailers who were at the meeting have either gone bust or pulled out of the town.

Discussion of the town centre redevelopment was lead by Borough planning official Daryl Phillips. The gist was: the town needed redevelopment (no mention of the fact why), a superstore was what was needed for the town, the matter had been discussed before thus there was no need for further discussion and the committee should vote to approve the application. Concern at the loss of Firgrove Court (the sort of concern Tony Blair expresses when he bombs innocent Iraqis and Afghans), but these people could not be allowed to stand in the way of a superstore. A photo was shown of the town centre. It showed a street devoid of people. Phillips then hastily added it was early in the morning. This caused hilarity in the public gallery as it could have been at any time of the day.

Phillips told the meeting that whilst Sainsbury's had not yet signed a lease for the site, their engineers had been involved in the design of the store. This contrasted sharply with what I had been told by Sainsbury's earlier that day. I spoke again to Sainsbury's the following day, and repeated Phillips' comments. They said they could only reiterate what they had told me the previous day: that Sainsbury's had no involvement in the development.

A letter had been received from the owner of a fish n chip shop in the town. This was ridiculed and treated with contempt: why had she written in so late, why did she claim there had been no consultation. The reasons were quite simple: she had only just learnt of what was going in, there had been no consultation, cf claim by Phillips of extensive consultation.

In the light of no consultation, retailers only learn of what is happening from what they read in the local press or from what their customers tell them. As Don Cappleman has made very clear, it is not the role of councillors to go round and talk to people, or at least it is not his role.

My own submission was apparently late and contributed nothing new. It had been placed in everyone's pigeon hole the night before. This looked good, but of course no one had had the chance to read it. But it was a first. The first time any submission from the public had been circulated to committee members. As if on cue, one of the councillors, Neville Dewey said, although he by his own admission had not read it, it contributed nothing new.

I had received a letter from Phillips the previous Thursday notifying me that the town centre was on the agenda and I could, maybe, speak, if I sought permission to speak. Unable of course to contact him, I was unable to speak. Notification is in itself novel. I was notified of the 2 June 2004 meeting, but never before, and from my inquiries, it seems no one else had been notified, including the the Firgrove Court tenants who sought the Judicial Review or their lawyers. I requested the agenda and received a copy in the post Saturday morning. My comments were delivered Saturday afternoon, updated comments on Monday afternoon. Without being clairvoyant and lacking a crystal ball, it is difficult to see how my comments could have been delivered earlier. I would not have even bothered making comments if I was not saying something new.

No discussion took place on the many points I had raised.

In fact, the councillors were remarkably silent. Hard to believe destruction of a town centre was under consideration.

In addition to the residents of Firgrove Court who are being kicked out of their homes, the KPI tenants who live in the flats above the shops due for demolition are also due to be kicked out of their homes. The main difference is that Firgrove Court are being offered alternative, albeit inferior, accommodation, the KPI tenants will be made homeless. Also the Firgrove Court residents will have some legal protection (so weak to be almost worthless) whereas the KPI tenants will have no legal agreement to protect them

One councillor, Patricia Hodge, demonstrated her appalling ignorance of tenancy law by saying this was okay, the KPI tenants were private tenants and thus had the full protection of the Rent Acts!!!!!

Council officials, if they have any role at all, are presnt to give advice to councillors. The Borough Solicitor was present when these crass comments were made. She failed to intervene to say the member was misinformed or to correct her. A clear dereliction of duty by the Borough Solicitor.

The committee, including the two board members of Pavilion, voted unanimously for the demolition of half the town centre and erection of a superstore.

At the start of the discussion, Paul Taylor, who manages a Christian bookshop cum tea shop, vacated the room. He was the only committee member who had taken the trouble to try to understand the issues. Curiously he did not declare an interest and leave the room when the same application was before the meeting on the 2 June 2004. So what had changed? Taylor had been asking a lot of embarrassing questions behind the scenes, questions that would not have gone down too well if asked in public before his peers. When he left the room he looked a very worried and frightened man. It was very obvious he had been got at.

The only other councillor who would have asked embarrassing questions was Aldershot councillor Peter Sandy. Reported in the local press as a 'controversial councillor', he is as community activist who had recently taken a safe Labour seat in the June election by asking awkward questions and getting things done for the local community. He has done more for the local community than all our local councillors combined (and that was even before he became a councillor). He had taken the trouble to look around Farnborough town centre and ask questions. More than any other councillor bar one, who I will not name to save him/her from reprisals. Peter Sandy was appalled by what he found. He read the agenda and found it bore no resemblance to reality on the ground, or what people had told him they wanted. He read the agenda and found it failed to meet government planning guidelines on sustainable development of town centres.

He wished to address the committee to express his grave disquiet. He asked the committee chairman at a Council meeting the day before the planning meeting if he could speak, he also asked indirectly via planning official Daryl Phillips who was having a meeting with the chairman that day. He also asked via a planning committee member George Paparatsi (who if it had not been through the efforts of Peter Sandy would not even have a seat on the Council let alone a seat on the committee). He turned up to the meeting 45 minutes early hoping to find the chairman, but could not find him. As the meeting was about to start, he asked committee member John Starling, would he please draw to the attention of the chairman that he was present and remind him of his request to speak. Starling refused with a gruff no, then acted as though Peter Sandy did not exist.

The LibDems have rewarded Peter Sandy for his excellent election results (he took a safe Labour seat held by the Mayor, where previously LibDems had been a poor third, ironically at the same time pushing former committee chairman disgraced Tory candidate Eddie Poole, deselected by the Tories from a safe Tory seat, into a humiliating third place) by barring him from all committees bar one.

It was business as usual in the Rotten Borough of Rushmoor. Contempt by councillors for the local community. No one questioned the validity of a superstore restoring the vitality of a dying town, no one showed any concern for the people being kicked out of their homes, or the small traders being driven out of business, no one questioned a superstore being in the 'public interest'.

Maybe the Council wants a town centre that consists of two superstore (there is already an ASDA superstore) and nothing more.

Having emptied the town of the small independent retailers, we will be left with a wasteland in which two superstores battle it out for market share.

No one was surprised at the decision. For some time the Council chief executive Andrew Lloyd has been pushing the KPI redevelopment as 'corporate policy'. That in itself is nothing new. He pushed an unwanted business airport at Farnborough on behalf of TAG Aviation against the strong wishes of the local community. He is doing the same again with an abattoir on the edge of Aldershot. It would be difficult to imagine a less suitable site for an abattoir on the banks of a river in a flood plain. But according to Lloyd, it was the only suitable site for the abattoir. Comments made in the absence of an environmental survey for the site.

The description of this one planing meeting is a story that could be retold for virtually every Rushmoor planning meeting. It is the reason why the local community has lost all confidence in the local planning process.

There is though a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. There may be further legal action. The Council has made the ludicrous claim that a superstore revitalises a town centre, that human rights can be overridden by a superstore as a superstore is in the 'public interest'. It may be possible to challenge these claims in court on the grounds that the Council has behaved unreasonably. One could even argue the councillors have behaved perversely. We have had the OFT and Competition Commission whitewash inquiries into the activities of supermarkets. We may now have the opportunity to put superstores on trial. It would make the McLibel trial look like a picnic.

The day after the planning meting, Sainsbury's sacked their chairman, they announced their second profits warning and their share price went into free fall. On Monday, Sainsbury's hold their AGM. Two days later, Morrisons announced a severe profit warning and warned that sales at the recently acquired Safeways were falling. Morrisons shares immediately dropped by 4%, by early afternoon they were down by 18%.

Across the country Sainsbury's distribution depots have been shut down in an anti-GM protest.

Is the writing on the wall for superstores?

background and further reading

Battle in store? A discussion of the social impacts of the major supermarkets, Sustain, 2000

Wendell Berry, Conserving Communities [in Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996]

Joanna Blytheman, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, Fourth Estate, 2004

Samantha Chapman, Row over councillor, Farnborough News, 25 June 2004

Samantha Chapman, Speaking out against MP, Farnborough Mail, 29 June 2004

Checkout Chuckout!, Corporate Watch and The Land Is Ours, July 2002

Simon Coughlin, Town centre progress plea, Farnborough News, 2 July 2004

Samantha Chapman and Simon Coughlin, Shock defeat for the mayor, Aldershot Mail, 15 June 2004

The Ecologist, September 2004 {forthcoming special edition on the negative impact of supermarkets}

Every Little Hurts: Why Tesco needs to be tamed, MP's briefing, FoE, June 2004

Corinna Hawkes and Jacqui Webster, How supermarkets destroy jobs, Corporate Watch journal, Spring 2000

Lucy Michaels (Ed), What's Wrong With Supermarkets (4th ed), Corporate Watch, April 2004

George Monbiot, Brecon Reckoning, The Ecologist, December 2000/January 2001

George Monbiot, 'Sins of the Superstores Visited on Us', The Guardian 1 March 2001

Keith Parkins, Trashing of Farnborough Town Centre, Indymedia UK, 11 November 2002

Keith Parkins, Trashing of Farnborough Town Centre, Indymedia UK, 14 November 2002

Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre, Indymedia UK, 8 September 2003

Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre - compulsory purchase orders, Indymedia UK, 16 October 2003

Keith Parkins, Town & Out II, Corporate Watch, 14 January 2004

Keith Parkins, Social landlords are deviating from their intended purpose, Indymedia UK, 20 January 2004

Keith Parkins, Registered social landlords – the new corporations, Indymedia UK, 18 February 2004

Keith Parkins, Registered social landlords – the new corporations, Corporate Watch Newsletter, January-February 2004

Keith Parkins, Sell out of Farnborough town centre, Indymedia UK, 5 June 2004

Keith Parkins, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, Indymedia UK, 28 June 2004

Keith Parkins, Redevelopment of Farnborough town centre, July 2004

Plans to modernise town centre are approved, Farnborough News, 11 June 2004

Andrew Simms et al, Ghost Town Britain, New Economics Foundation, 2002

Andrew Simms et al, Ghost Town Britain II, New Economics Foundation, 2003

Super markets or corporate bullies, FoE, February 2004

Tesco: Exposed, FoE, June 2003

Valerie Waldock, Don't knock councillor, he worked hard for us, Farnborough News, 2 July 2004

John Walton, Mayor ousted, Surrey-Hants Star, 17 June 2004

Keith Parkins
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Display the following 2 comments

  1. Here we go again — Sqoo
  2. pretty much the same all over western europe — Igetaboutabit
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