Friday 23 December 2011

Building on sand - a convoluted planning saga

It's the time of year when just about everyone is nominating something or other for an award, so here is Cneifiwr's award for the most convoluted planning story of the year.

Some years ago it was decided by a group comprising a developer, a landowner and the great and good of Ceredigion County Council that what Cardigan needed more than anything else was a big new supermarket and a new cottage hospital. There was strong local opposition to the plan, but people were given to understand that in order to get the new hospital, there would have to be a supermarket as well.

The existing cottage hospital is housed in what was once a grand house and has been added to over the years. Part of the justification for the proposal to close the existing site was that it is prone to flooding, and it is true that occasionally part of the extensive grounds next to the Teifi have been under water. When the buildings themselves were last flooded, I do not know.

In anticipation of a favourable decision, all but essential maintenance of the buildings stopped some years ago, with the result that the hospital is now looking very sad.

Eventually the supermarket (Sainsbury's) got planning permission, but the plan for a new hospital ran rather less smoothly. When funding was agreed it turned out that there was no agreement for the land where the new hospital was to be sited. The landowner held out for a very high price, and was threatened with compulsory purchase. Earlier this year, that hurdle was finally cleared. Then the new Labour administration in Cardiff announced that it was putting all such projects on hold while it carried out a review.

It seems that Cardiff has now given the green light, but for a long while it looked as though contrary to what had been promised, Cardigan would get a new supermarket and no hospital.

During the last 18 months work on the site infrastructure has been in full swing, and the town has had to endure a near constant stream of heavy lorries trundling through the High Street on their way to or from the Bath-house site. At one point about a year ago, all work had to be stopped because the developers had felled a lot of trees, which it seems, the planners had forgotten to put under preservation orders.

In response to the Sainsbury's plan, Tesco announced plans for a huge expansion of its existing store. Uproar ensued. Tesco eventually "compromised" by scaling back its plans to what it probably really wanted from the start, and it got its way.

Until very recently, it seemed that the hospital and the supermarket would both go ahead, with the new Sainsbury's opening in mid-2012. But now the venerable Tivyside Advertiser reports that problems with land stability at the site of the proposed supermarket and also on one of the access roads have thrown the whole thing up in the air again.

Meanwhile rumours recently started flying that Tesco had done a deal with the owner of a neighbouring car dealership to purchase his site. Previous rounds of negotiations between the car dealership and the supermarket group apparently failed because of the price being demanded by Mr Davies, the car dealer (star earlier this year of a piece of excellent investigative reporting by ITV's The Ferret), and Tesco announced that it did not need to buy the site anyway.

Mr Davies then went on to upset users of the town's allotments behind his dealership when he made an offer to the county council to take a chunk of the allotments to expand his business. The council declined his offer. Not long after that episode, he went on finally to win another planning battle to build a supermarket on the site of another car dealership under his ownership in nearby Newcastle Emlyn.

Still with me? This story has more twists and turns than an Alpine switchback.

In the case of Newcastle Emlyn, planning permission was granted in the teeth of very strong local opposition and despite overwhelming evidence that the site itself (like the hospital in Cardigan, next to the river) was highly unstable.

According to recent rumours, Tesco have reached agreement with Mr Davies to buy both the Cardigan and Newcastle Emlyn sites, although there are reasons for taking these with a very large shovelful of salt, not least because part of the Newcastle Emlyn site is a county council car park, and Carmarthenshire County Council have said that in the event that they are approached with a request, they will sell using a system of sealed bids.

It is understood that no approaches have been made to the county council to date, and until the car park has been sold, no supermarket can be built.

Just up the road from Mr Davies's car lot is another vehicle dealership in Newcastle Emlyn (pop. 1,500) which secured planning permission for a discount store (Aldi, Lidl, etc.) just over a year ago. A deal between the owners of the site and Lidl fell through, and so far it seems there are no takers. Given that the "town" is already served by one supermarket and two large convenience stores, the supermarkets themselves have shown what they thought of Carmarthenshire County Council's support for the plans on the basis of quantitative need. Bollocks, is the word that springs to mind.

And so it seems that in Cneifiwr's square mile there is now a hat trick of supermarket plans which are going nowhere.Two different planning authorities, and two out of three sites prone to subsidence. Indeed, if Mr Davies's Newcastle Emlyn ever does get developed, locals are betting how long it will be before the otters in the Teifi find themselves swimming through the wreckage and the remains of the buy one, get one free offers.

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