The seventh day of the Rushden Lakes planning inquiry heard evidence from a retail and town centre development expert witness for the consortium of objecting councils.
Chris Goddard, retail and town centre development witness for the consortium of objecting Corby, Kettering and Northampton borough councils, prepared the independent assessment of the retail strategy for North Northamptonshire and the implications of the Rushden Lakes proposals in April 2012.
Speaking about the strategy at the inquiry today (Thursday), he said: “We identified limited opportunities in Rushden town centre. The three centre strategy, which seeks to direct development growth in Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough remains sound and I don’t suggest any cause to alter the strategy.
“We reviewed the proposals. We did recognise the scale of retail [at Rushden Lakes] would be sub-regional and would compete directly with Northampton and other higher order centres. The only way it could compete is to direct trade away from town centres.
“We recognised that the development could retain trade in north Northants, but at the expense of high streets.”
When asked to comment on the popularity of the proposed development with people locally, Mr Goddard said: “The importance of the inquiry is to judge on planning merits, not on a lot of people thinking it’s a good idea.
Continuing on the topic of the adopted framework for the north of the county, Mr Goddard said: “The strategy was about town centres. You have a core strategy which is based on seeking to regenerate and promote town centres.
“The applicant relies very extensively on the reference to retaining expenditure, but it’s obvious from the reading of the plans that by regenerating town centres and seeking to enhance market share of town centres that objectives would be met.”
He went on to talk about the difficulties facing the retail market, including the economic conditions and competition from the internet. He also said retailers are now more selective about where they open stores.
Mr Goddard said: “The prognosis is still that towns in north Northamptonshire are all in need of investment. There’s no dispute that’s the best way to retain and enhance market share, with the possible exception of Wellingborough, which is looking vulnerable as a town centre.
“The evidence is that they are declining in terms of market share and they haven’t attracted investment and they are vulnerable and they are all in need of investment. In the current climate that investment is all going to come from the private sector.”
Mr Goddard suggested other sites in Northampton and Kettering which he said would be more suitable to house the Rushden Lakes development. He also spoke about potential developments for other town centres. He told the inspector that a supermarket chain wanted to build a mixed use development on Jacksons Lane car park, but Wellingborough Council confirmed today that no formal offer had been made by Asda for the site, and that talks were still ongoing with the supermarket chain and another interested party.
Mr Goddard said if the Rushden Lakes application were to be approved he would have specific concerns about the affect on Wellingborough and Northampton town centres. He also said he believed the proposed development would impact on Kettering town centre, but he believed the greatest threat Rushden Lakes poses is to Northampton, with the potential to impact on its trade by 18 to 20 per cent.
He said: “My main concern for Northampton to move forward is that it needs investment.
“I think the decision of Legal and General to abandon such development in Northampton [if Rushden Lakes goes ahead] sends a very damaging message. I’m assuming Legal and General won’t walk away just for the spite of it. I assume it’s because they would see it as not being a viable option.
“I think it send s a very damaging message to the market place.
“If Legal and General doesn’t sell the Grosvenor Centre and just stayed there as an owner, for a new party to come in would be very difficult.”
He added: “I’m not concerned about Rushden town centre and I think in Corby the impact would be relatively insignificant.
“It’s my view that there’s significant impact on Wellingborough, Northampton and I am also concerned about Kettering.”
In one exchange, Christopher Katkowski QC, for the applicant LXB Retail Properties, asked Mr Goddard: “Is it a position that Legal and General are not the answer, rather the problem? If Legal and General did ship out and they get a more dynamic site who will do a deal with House of Fraser and get Primark as an anchor, and get on with it.”
Mr Goddard refused to be drawn, but he did say: “Legal and General is a leading national player and a highly reputable organisation with significant funds.”
Mr Katkowski replied by saying “there must be something fundamentally wrong, either with Northampton or the Grosvenor Centre site itself” as Legal & General have not developed the centre during the last 14 years, even during the period of the “greatest economic boom that we have seen in our lifetime.”
Mr Goddard was also asked about potential trading figures for the proposed development and the flow of existing trading figures.
It was heard that people who live in north Northamptonshire currently spend an estimated £426million a year outside of North Northamptonshire.
Both sides agree that Rusden Lakes would improve the retention of spending in the Rushden area, but they disagree on how it would affect neighbouring areas.
And Mr Katkowski questioned Mr Goddard’s assessment that 14 per cent of the estimated Rushden Lakes annual turnover – £19.2million – would come from people who live in Northampton.