The fifth day of the Rushden Lakes planning inquiry heard from the final witnesses for the applicant.
John Rhodes, the last witness for LXB Retail Properties, started his evidence by discussing the ecological benefits the development would bring to Skew Bridge.
Mr Rhodes was one of the four members of the Government’s advisory group who prepared the draft on which the Government’s new planning reforms are closely based.
He said: “A letter from the RSPB describes this site as one of the most important sites in the UK.
“The Nene Valley is the most significant asset in this part of the country. The authorities have woken up to that and realised its potential, and they want to harness that potential for benefits for the local area. Also to bring people to the area as that will generate spin off benefits.”
Mr Rhodes also said the development was supported by local scouts, sea cadets and Canoe2.
He went on to talk about retail aspect of the proposed £50m development and preexisting planning policies for the north of the county which favour further development in Corby, Wellingborough and Kettering town centres, rather than out of town developments – a policy which Mr Rhodes said was out of date.
He said: “The market has not responded to the strategy of development in the three towns.
“The application of floorspace in those towns has not been taken up to any extent.
“The Rushden Lakes site, and not the town centre, at the moment is by far the most significant market opportunity in north Northamptonshire.
“The lack of development in the growth towns and the focus on the growth towns has been a failure of the strategy.”
Mr Rhodes said the retail planning policy for north Northamptonshire was to retain trade from local residents and prevent people flocking to Northampton or Milton Keynes to do their shopping.
“Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby are meant to be sub-regional shopping centres, and Northampton is meant to compete with them,” he said.
“Wellingborough was recorded to have a particular low market share. Even Kettering was encouraged to respond to a need for larger units in order to attract retailers.
“Each of the centres is currently failing to meet the needs of many of its residents, who are travelling further afield to meet their needs. In particular, the need for higher profile fashion operators.”
Russell Harris QC, representing the Grosvenor Centre in Northampton, questioned Mr Rhodes about the suitability of the development for Rushden.
He said: “You don’t seek to put high end retailers in a small district centre.”
He also talked about the proposed redevelopment of the Grosvenor Centre and the new Northampton bus station.
He said the Secretary of State would want to consider whether the £11million public sector investment in the new bus station, to facilitate the proposed expansion of the Grosvenor Centre, was well spent if approving Rushden Lakes meant that the Grosvenor Centre expansion would not go ahead.
The bus station, on the site of the former Fishmarket building, is expected to open in spring 2014. It will replace the Greyfriars building which is now 37-years-old.
He said: “We are looking at impact on existing investment and whether existing investment has been well spent.
“If planning permission goes ahead there [Rushden Lakes], Legal and General are clearly saying they will not redevelop the Grosvenor Centre.”
During their opening statements last week, Miss Ellis said: “Legal and General have made it clear that the redevelopment of the Grosvenor Centre will not go ahead if Rushden Lakes is approved.”
However, speaking to the Telegraph’s sister paper, the Northampton Chronicle & Echo on June 21, Councillor David Mackintosh, leader of Northampton Borough Council, said the Grosvenor Centre extension will still go ahead.
He said: “We will still develop the Greyfriars site and we are committed to doing that, although Rushden Lakes going ahead would obviously have an impact on it.”
Mr Rhodes said that if Rushden Lakes is not approved there’s no guarantee the Grosvenor Centre will be re-developed by Legal and General, but he said Northampton Borough Council has gone on record in the past to say that another development partner would be found if Legal and General was to pull out.
Responding to Mr Harris’s suggestion that Legal and General’s will not redevelop the Grosvenor Centre if Rushden Lakes goes ahead, Mr Rhodes said: “Those words have been used for many years and it’s not come forward for years – well before Rushden Lakes was on the scene.
“The more I have understood, the stronger I have understood the wider benefits it [Rushden Lakes] would bring to the local area.
“But the Secretary of State has called it in and it’s objected to by neighbouring local authorities, so maybe it’s punching above its weight and it’s too good to be true. But this area is meant to retain more expenditure, it’s meant to have this scale and quality of retail development.
“Rushden Lakes should not be blamed for the failure of Northampton to perform.”
The first witness for the consortium of Corby, Kettering and Northampton borough Councils began addressing the inquiry late this afternoon.
Matt Whiteley, who has been advising Northampton Borough Council on planning regulation and development matters since 2010, contradicted what the inquiry had already heard Northampton Borough Council had previously told another inspector when he said it was unlikely another developer would step in if Legal and General pulled out of the Grosvenor Centre.
He said: “It’s my opinion that Rushden Lakes would have a catchment that includes Northampton.”
The 12-day inquiry will continue until the end of next Week, and a final decision is expected to be made by the inspector in December.