Last week's Tivyside Advertiser carries a rather misleading report (not available online) on a supermarket planning application in Newcastle Emlyn. In fairness the council's own report on the plan is less than clear about what is being proposed.
For those who do not know the town, Newcastle Emlyn has a population of about 1,500 (including Adpar across the river in Ceredigion). It is well served by its retailers, including a supermarket (CK's), a Co-op, a Spar, a butcher, a baker, a delicatessen and a great little shop specialising in mainly locally produced foods.
In recent years the town has also developed into something of a centre for the antiques trade, and jostling alongside all of this is an electrical goods specialist, several gift shops, cafes, two women's fashion shops, banks, a newsagent and several hairdressers. There is also a popular weekly fruit and veg market.
The town has weathered the recession well, and there are currently only a couple of empty premises. Local retailers will tell you that things have been very tough, but they have survived. Together they employ a couple of hundred people, and the bulk of the money generated stays in the town and the surrounding area because unusually nearly all of the shops are locally owned.
Carmarthenshire County Council's contribution to the town's economic welfare has been to steadily ramp up car parking charges (one hour will now cost you 70p), close the public toilets in the main car park and approve planning applications for two new supermarkets, including one which would have as much floorspace as all the other shops combined.
The two supermarket planning applications went in in rapid succession a few years back, and both were approved in 2011.
The first was for a Lidl store opposite the existing CK's supermarket. The consensus locally was that it would be largely a positive development, complementing existing businesses and offering more choice at competitive prices. Very few objections were received by the planning department, and most of those that were came from representatives of the rival proposed development up the road.
Lidl and the site owners were made to jump through a series of hoops by planning officers, who insisted on exhaustive traffic monitoring on the road outside.
The plan was eventually passed, and Lidl pulled out because it was not happy with some of the conditions imposed. Time passed until Aldi recently announced its intention of taking on the site, subject to some modifications of the planning consent.
The second much larger store is earmarked for a site currently occupied by a car showroom (Cawdor Cars) and one of the county council's car parks. It is not known which of the supermarket groups would operate it.
This was the subject of a fierce battle, and hundreds of objections were lodged. It was also strongly opposed by the Town Council. Despite being very close to a busy road junction, the planners were satisfied with a very perfunctory traffic assessment which contained several serious flaws.
Eventually the second application was also passed, albeit by the narrowest of margins, in September 2011.
Nothing has happened on either of the sites since, and it became apparent last year that although the Cawdor application had been passed, the site owner had failed to enter into a Section 106 agreement which was a condition of planning.
Without a S106, the site does not have formal planning consent, and subsequent enquiries with the Welsh Government showed that while this is within the law, it is extremely unusual for a planning authority to allow a S106 to go unsigned for so long. Applicants are normally given two or three months to sign, and if they don't, planning lapses.
The problem the developer faces is that the S106 agreement provides for a walkway from the site of the proposed supermarket through to the main street, but he does not own the land in question and has apparently not been able to come to an agreement with the owners.
To try to overcome this obstacle the developer has tried to have the strip of land declared a public right of way. This can be a very long-winded process and could take many years, particularly if anyone lodges an objection.
The latest ruse is to try to bypass the S106 log jam with a unilateral offer to pay in £10,000 to the council in return for removal of the S106 requirement, although this is not exactly made clear in the planning officer's report which was due to go before councillors last week.
At the last minute it was agreed that a decision to rubberstamp the application and pave the way for final consent on the cheap would be deferred while planning officers give the matter further consideration.
Whatever happens it seems highly unlikely that the improvement works to the walkway will be carried out any time soon, and for those familiar with the site it is obvious that £10,000 is nowhere near enough to pay for the work. The mystery also remains over whether any supermarket group is actually interested in taking on the site.
The rush to push the plan through looks like an abuse of the planning process to the detriment of the town.
Completely irrelevant to this saga is the fact that the council would apparently quite like to flog off the public car park which the developer argued in 2011 was in imminent danger of sliding down into the river. It is therefore good to report that the car park is still there and open for business.