Day 10 of the Rushden Lakes planning inquiry heard evidence from witnesses for the owner of Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre.
Legal and General is one of the two parties represented at the inquiry which are opposing the proposed £50million retail and leisure development for Skew Bridge.
The day started with a dispute between the barristers representing each side after Christopher Katkowski QC, for the applicant LXB Retail Properties, submitted information about an improved bus service offer following criticism from a highways and transport witness for the opposition earlier in the inquiry.
Russell Harris QC, for the Grosvenor Centre, described it as a ‘new transport scheme entirely’, and suggested the inquiry may have to be adjourned for it to be considered.
Mr Katkowski disagreed. He said: “Lets get real about this, Mr Hunter-Yeats said there was a need for there to be a better bus service, including a Sunday service, and we have now secured this.
“It really is sour grapes to complain about someone making a bus service better. They have put forward a point and that point has been taken away from them, and that is the top and bottom of it.
“It’s a hopelessly weak point. It’s common place for matters to move on during an inquiry.”
Inspector Harold Stephens had the last say on the matter. He said: “There will be an opportunity tomorrow to explore these matters further. The inquiry does evolve and move forward.”
Today’s proceedings were dominated by talk about Northampton and the town’s shopping centre. Legal & General has said it would pull out of plans to expand and redevelop the Grosvenor Centre if Rushden Lakes is granted planning permission.
The property fund management firm claims the increased competition for retailers and customers at the new development 25-minutes down the A45 would have an adverse affect on its trade.
Robin Denness, the first witness to be called by the legal team for Legal & General, was asked if it would be ‘fair to say there is currently no planned investment by Legal and General as we sit here today’. He replied “yes”, it would be fair to say that.
But Mr Denness added: “Legal & General plan to invest in the town centre, most definitely.
“I don’t know precise amounts, but I do have it on good authority that it runs into the millions.”
He did, however, say that would not go ahead if planning permission for Rushden Lakes is approved.
He was asked about reports linking Primark to the Grosvenor Centre unit which is currently occupied by House of Fraser.
Christopher Katkowski QC, for the applicant LXB Retail Properties, said: “Primark taking up the House of Fraser unit has been completed? The market understands that deal has now been completed.”
Mr Denness replied: “I don’t have knowledge on that.”
Mr Katkowski also asked Mr Denness about the potential sale of the Grosvenor Centre.
He said: “Are you aware that Legal and General planned to sell the centre.
“The deal was due to be completed on the Monday before the inquiry.”
Mr Katkowski suggested the reported deal might have been held up for a deal to be done with Primark.
But the allegation was denied by both Mr Denness and the barrister representing Legal & General at the inquiry.
Mr Denness said: “That’s the first time I’ve heard that suggestion. I am very well placed in the market. I am pretty well up to date on which shopping centres are on the market, even confidentially.
“I would have certainly been aware if there were any rumours circulating.”
This afternoon the inquiry heard evidence from the second Legal & General witness, Matthew Jones, who said the Rushden Lakes development would be ‘out of scale’ for the Rushden area.
He described Rushden as a small, secondary town and said he didn’t believe there was a need for a development of this scale in that area.
“There isn’t a gap in that area that isn’t served by other centres, including Kettering, Wellingborough and Northampton,” he said.
Mr Jones said he believed the Rushden Lakes development ‘was about as unsustainable as you can get’.
Despite no actual plans being put forward before the inquiry for the expansion of the Grosvenor Centre, Mr Jones said he was satisfied there was “existing, committed and planned investment” for the centre, and this along with the public money already invested in the relocation of the bus station in Northampton should be given ‘significant weight’ by the inspector.
Commenting on the current retail situation for the Northampton, he said: “I would describe the situation in Northampton as being fragile and vulnerable.”
More details were revealed about the proposed re-development of the Grosvenor Centre during Mr Katkowski’s cross examination of Mr Jones’ evidence, including the possibility for the proposed re-development to house an expanded Sainsbury’s store.
Mr Jones was also asked about the justification Legal & General gave at an inspection into the Northampton area action plan as to why the redevelopment of the Grosvenor Centre wasn’t going ahead.
At the time Legal and General said the economy and the out of town proposal already approved by Northampton Borough Council were to blame. Mr Katkowski asked why no mention was made about Rushden Lakes at that time.
Mr Jones said: “It represents our firm’s position at the time.”
Mr Jones also admitted he was ‘not privy to any analysis or assessment’ by Legal & General that the expansion of the Grosvenor Centre would be viable if Rushden Lakes is not approved, or that it would not be viable if it was to be approved.
Mr Katkowski then suggested that retailers do not see that Rushden Lakes would be in direct competition with Northampton as no retailers currently based in Northampton had written to the inquiry to complain about the proposed development having an impact on its trade. This was denied by Mr Jones.