The final day of the Rushden Lakes inquiry heard closing submissions from each of the four parties who have contested the inquiry over the last three weeks.
Barristers for the applicant, LXB Retail Properties, and East Northamptonshire Council both argued the reasons for the development going ahead, while representatives employed by Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre and the consortium of Corby, Kettering and Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre argued against the development being approved.
LXB has applied for planning permission to build a £50million retail and leisure park at Skew Bridge.
The proposed development would include 13 stores, including two anchor stores, a garden centre, restaurants, a hotel and a visitor centre.
Throughout the three-week long hearing evidence both for and again the development going ahead has been presented by witnesses for all parties.
An evening session, held in response to demand from local people to speak at the inquiry, heard from 27 local people, councillors, business leaders and community group representatives, who all spoke in favour of the proposed development.
Today (Friday) the legal representatives for each side had one final opportunities to makes their case during their closing submissions.
Christopher Katkowski QC, for LXB, said people had been bewildered as to why the inquiry had been so dominated by talk about Northampton, with only one witness acting for both Corby and Kettering borough councils.
He also called for ‘a little common sense’, when referring to the allegation by the objectors that Rushden Lakes would be half the size of Northampton. Mr Katkowski said it would actually have the equivalent of 21 per cent of the town’s retail floor space.
Mr Katkowski said the two anchor retail units proposed for Rushden Lakes, one of which would be taken up by Marks & Spencer with Debenhams likely to occupy the other, would only be medium sized units and not big enough for flagship stores.
He said: “It is important to understand what Rushden Lakes is and what it isn’t. It’s not simply a retail proposal. It’s much more than a retail park, but that’s what our opponents have focussed on.
“It’s clear from the evening session that the public is bewildered as to why the inquiry has been dominated by Northampton.
“We have heard far too much from the Northampton lobby.
“We are a scapegoat for Legal & General and someone to blame for their failure to invest in the Grosvenor Centre – long before Rushden Lakes came along.”
Mr Katkowski then went on to talk about the planning framework for North Northampton, which is currently being reviewed by the North Northamptonshire joint planning unit. The previously adopted policy states development should take place in the three growth towns of Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough town centres, with Rushden’s role being one which is complementary to those town centres as a convenience and services centre. However, Mr Katkowski said Rushden now qualified for growth town status.
He said: “The core strategy has failed to deliver the growth. No town centre has delivered anything like the floor space [allotted].
“The inquiry has failed to deliver any evidence of any significant town centre development was about to be delivered or was being actively progressed.
“Two of the four local authorities, Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire, are in favour of Rushden Lakes. Kettering, and heavens knows why Corby are not.
“The evidence is that Rushden warrants growth town status, and Northampton Borough Council has not opposed to that. Rushden has, and is programmed to achieve, comparable levels of growth to the other towns.”
Mr Katkowski went on to the subject of Wellingborough, which, the inquiry has heard, is performing poorly in retail terms and suffers a large leakage of trade to Northampton and other centres.
He said Wellingborough’s poor performance and the lack of proposed development for the town meant that there was a need for a development to meet the needs of both Wellingborough and Rushden in the south of north Northamptonshire.
He said Wellingborough Council and the town’s chamber of commerce were both in favour of the development as the size of retail units proposed for Rushden Lakes could not be provided in Rushden.
He said: “The reality is that Northampton town centre is so far removed from the Lakes and of little relevance to its residents.
“Residents of Northampton town centre also spend money at out of town retail centres, and a lot their money goes to Milton Keynes.
“Northampton town centre does not depend on money flowing to it from Rushden, and nor should it.”
Mr Katkowski said ‘ludicrous’ suggestions from witnesses for the consortium Northampton, Corby and Kettering councils that the development could be broken up and accommodated in Kettering and Northampton demonstrated a lack of understanding of planning policies.
Commenting on the self-proclaimed suggestion of Legal & General that it won’t go ahead with the Grosvenor Centre expansion if Rushden Lakes is approved, Mr Katkowski said: “Do you really believe that turning this application down would energise Legal and General to deliver. Better to have jam with LBX today than hold out for a stale slice of bread with Legal & General.”
Mr Katkowski also criticised Legal & General for not
“Legal & General have not called a single witness able to give a statement about the viability of the expansion.
“Even Legal & General’s witnesses have been kept in the dark.
“It’s implausible that retailers would chose not to be represented in Northampton, the regional centre, because of Rushden Lakes.
“The real problem for Northampton is not Rushden Lakes, we are a side show. It is instead Legal & General’s failure to not deliver investment at the Grosvenor Centre over many years.”
He finished by praising the 27 people who spoke in favour of the development at the evening session of the inquiry on Tuesday.
He said: “This is a once in a generation opportunity for planning to do what it should, which is to makes things better and give people pride in the area they live.”
Ian Dove QC, for East Northamptonshire Council, said the application reflected the area’s ambition to reflects area’s ambition to ‘grow and prosper’, and leave behind the legacy of the boot and shoe industry.
He said: “This application has attracted extraordinary local support. Peter Bone MP told the inquiry he had never known anything like it.
“The Rushden Lakes proposal is the opportunity the community has long been waiting for to meet the demand for jobs, shops and leisure opportunities.
“The objectors to the scheme include neighbouring local authorities, three of which have appeared at the inquiry. The residents [of these towns] have not supported their opposition. Andy Sawford, MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire, said he believed it was in the best interest of his constituents as a whole.”
Mr Dove then referred to early comments previously made by Cllr David Mackintosh, leader of Northampton Borough Council, in which he said ‘the prospect of Northampton residents making the trip to Rushden Lakes was unlikely’. Cllr Mackintosh later changed his position on the application.
Mr Dove then went on to talk about the development plan adopted by the joint planning unit for North Northamptonshire.
He also said there was no other suitable site in Wellingborough or Rushden for the development. In Wellingborough Tresham College has abandoned plans to vacant the Church Street site which was previously identified in the town’s area action plan for retail development.
“In Wellingborough, the area action plan is out of date and the local chamber of commerce and Wellingborough Council is fully behind the Rushden Lakes project,” Mr Dove said.
Moving on to talk about the opposition to the Rushden Lakes development by Legal & General, the owner of Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre, Mr Dove said that Milton Keynes was more of a draw for Northampton residents than Rushden.
He also said that the proposed expansion of the shopping centre was at such a premature stage that there were no plans, no planning application and no planning permission. He also said that Northampton Borough Council would have to use its powers of compulsory purchase to buy areas of privately owned land necessary for the expansion to go ahead.
He also described the firm’s announcement that it will pull out of plans to expand the centre is Rushden Lakes gets planning permission as ‘unevidenced and not sensible’.
He said: “Legal & General have been involved with the Grosvenor Centre since 1999 and did not invest in the economic boom.
“The witnesses have not been privy to any development agreements.
“The evidence shows that there’s no competition for retailers. Retailers that do trade in towns and retail parks so do in close proximity.”
Mr Dove also said the development would provide 290 construction jobs and generate £7million for the local economy. He also said the operational phase would provide more than 1,300 full time and 844 part-time jobs.
Russell Harris QC for Legal & General, the owner of the Grosvenor Centre, said the development was ‘the wrong development, in the wrong place, at the wrong time’.
He said any benefits it would bring to the Rushden area would be outweighed by the harm it would cause to Northampton and the planned expansion for the Grosvenor Centre.
Mr Harris said: “The proposal would be the largest agglomeration of retail floor space in the county.
“There’s no need for such a development once the scale of the retail hierarchy is understood.
“No attempt at all has been made to consider at all whether parts of the proposals can be located in other higher order centres.
“Their proposals will result in the largest single retail park in Northamptonshire.
“Northampton town centre is now fragile and hasn’t kept track with Milton Keynes. The opening 14 miles away of a high end centre will kill forever the planned investment in the Grosvenor Centre.”
Mr Harris criticised the legal team for the applicant for submitted new details about an improved bus service offer – for a half-hourly bus service and a Sunday bus service – on the penultimate day of the inquiry.
He went on to say: “The proposed development is massive. It’s so large that it would rank as the eighth largest shopping centre in the country.
“It’s the proposal for the creation of a new sub-regional shopping development.
“It does not meet the day to day needs of the catchment. It’s deliberately aimed at the high-end offer usually found in Northampton.
“The list of retailers targeted [for Rushden Lakes and the Grosvenor Centre expansion] are effectively the same.
“The applicant has provided a letter to show that Marks & Spencer are now confirmed as an anchor and they are targeting Debenhams.
“It’s specifically designed to target the list of high end retailers that the Grosvenor Centre expansion would be targeting.
“Rushden is a small market town which would not have the spending power by itself to meet the needs of the development.
“You cannot just throw a cricket boundary around the area and see what it’s needs are. You need to know the place of the cricket boundary in the hierarchy.
“There’s clearly no need for this scale of development.
“Rushden is a medium size market town. With Higham Ferrers the population is in the tens of thousands only. Rushden serves a largely rural village community.
“There’s no need for a massive out of town centre development.
“There’s no need for Rushden town centre to have that level of high end offer. So if there’s no need in Rushden for that, the question has to be asked why can it be said to be needed in an out of town centre location, serving the same place.
“There’s simply no local need a proposal of this scale. There is a local need and it’s set out and catered for in the development plan.”
He continued: “The Grosvenor Centre is a town centre site located for town centre use.
“The Grosvenor Centre is clearly a suitable site for the position of higher order floor space being proposed, but not needed, at the Lakes.
“Legal & General is the owner of the Grosvenor Centre. In the event that Rushden Lakes gets planning permission, it will not extend the Grosvenor Centre.
“The proposed benefits do not outweigh the harm it would cause.
“It is the antithesis of bad planning. It’s the wrong development, the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Morag Ellis QC, for the consortium of Corby, Kettering and Northampton borough councils, argued her case against the proposed development.
Miss Ellis started by saying she believed the Secretary of State had been right to take the unusual step of calling in the application.
Miss Ellis focussed much of the start of her closing submissions on the adopted planning policy framework.
She said: “It’s is fundamentally at odds with the spacial strategy of the development plan and it’s retail strategy.
“The proposals constitutes the wrong sort development in the wrong place.”
Miss Ellis alleged the development would be damaging to town centre in the county.
She said: “Town centres are a good thing, to be positively supported and promoted by the planning authorities.
“In order to fulfil their function they need the oxygen of money. With an out of town centre retail park, instead of the oxygen going to the town’s heart goes to its toes instead.”
Miss Ellis continued to draw from the adopted development plan for the north of the county.
She said that despite the applicant’s allegation that the framework is out of date, the plan is sound and has been reviewed by two companies.
Miss Ellis also said the Kettering East developer was to invest £20million in Kettering town centre and was concerned by the potential impact Rushden Lakes could have on this investment.
She went on to say: “No consideration has been given to bringing forward elements of the proposal to the other sites.
“In the real world it’s a subregional retail park.
“The achievement of Marks & Spencer as an anchor would send a serious message to other retailers.
“This is not a small proposal.”
Miss Ellis also put forward potential other sites in Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough where she said the development would take place.
She also claimed parts of the development could be housed at Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre. She said that if Rushden Lakes was given planning approval, it would have a negative impact for ‘the most significant town centre investment already planned for the county at Northampton’s Grosvenor Centre.
“All witnesses have agreed the need for investment in town centres,” she said.
Miss Ellis claimed Helical Bar, the owner of Corby’s Willow Place, would ‘wish to continue their good work’. “They can only do so if they can rely on finding suitable tenants,” Miss Ellis said.
Ellandi, owners of Kettering’s Newlands Centre, plan to expand and have touted Debenhams as a possible anchor. However, Miss Ellis said during the inquiry, witnesses had dismissed the likelihood of there being three new Debenhams stores in the county; at Kettering, Rushden Lakes and Northampton.
Inspector Harold Stephens will now prepare a report based on the evidence put forward at the inquiry for the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, who will have the final say on whether the development can be allowed to go ahead.