The article purported to be a report of a meeting on the previous Thursday evening at which 'small business owners learned more' about the new plans of council and developers 'to build a £90 million shopping centre in Leamington town centre' (sic).
Except, of course, the Courier goes to press before the meeting took place, so the use of the past tense is just a tad disingenuous. The reporter confirmed to me that he was not at the meeting, and so couldn't actually report it. My guess is that he merely changed the tense of the press release from the council or the Federation of Small Businesses, under the aegis of which the meeting was held. But I could be wrong.
According to my sources, attendance was about 10 or 12; probably the first time such a small gathering has received such prominent coverage.
But that is not the point. The point is that this is one of ways in which the illusion of 'consultation' is projected to the town. This ’report’ will be quoted in months to come by the advocates of the scheme as evidence of the ways in which the council engaged with major stakeholders.
We've been here before, of course, when letters inviting those businesses which would be affected to meetings were not actually delivered. We’ve watched Powerpoint presentations which made statements but never showed evidence. We listened to developers promise to get back to us but they never did.
We rallied and we argued and the proposals were defeated at the planning stage.
Clearly, we had won a battle but not a war. Because here we go again, with the council using their vast resources - how do they justify using our own business rates to destroy us? - to relaunch the whole thing, this time using an 'independent report' as its starting point.
This report, which is neither Portus nor Grimsey, is the third such report commissioned by the council in the last ten years. According to the Courier, it "highlights a need for a new shopping centre the size of the Clarendon Arcade to draw shoppers back into Leamington”.
What a surprise?! A report commissioned by the council coming up with a conclusion devoutly wished by the council. “The size of the Clarendon Arcade”? Really? How fortuitous.
Philip Clarke, the senior projects co-ordinator for WDC, last seen in 2012 taking credit for the fact that Leamington was doing better in attracting shoppers than any of its neighbouring competition and therefore, you might think, not requiring anything “to draw shoppers back into Leamington”, is quoted as saying: “this was part of our programme to engage with some of the main stakeholder groups which also include BID and the Chamber of Trade.”
When I spoke to BID on Friday afternoon, they had no idea what I was talking about and rushed off to buy a copy of the paper!
It is in fact part of a long-term battle by the planning department to develop the Chandos Street car park, which it owns.
In their determination to create this new arcade, they are destroying what remains of the heart of a Regency town, ignoring the evidence of their own eyes - the masses of empty stores - and once again sentencing those residents, retailers and restaurants in the area to another long period of uncertainty.
But what do they care?
These are the guys who also make it virtually impossible to park in Leamington in order to use the High Street attractions. They haven't read the Grimsey Report, which recommends that there should be a 'free two hour high street and town centre car parking system'.
Actually, they probably have read it. But they've ignored it. Because they want to play at being builders. Free parking would transform local business. We all know that.
Existing businesses, independent businesses, local residents, you just keep paying your rates while we spend the money paying consultants and offering deals to 'anchor stores’.
(And just wait for the rumours about John Lewis coming to town to start again as they did last time.)
As the Grimsey Report says, a necessary precondition of re-establishing our high streets is that we accept that “there is already too much retail space in the UK and that bricks and mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor to create thriving high streets and town centres”.
This is of course an ’independent report’. But it’s not the independent report that Mr Clarke and developers Wilson Bowden want. It’s the report that rate-payers and townspeople want, because it addresses real, day-to-day concerns.
We know that there are empty retail premises all over this town and probably more to come. More bricks and mortar means more empty premises that we, in the end, have to pay for.
Unfortunately, empiricism and common sense have seldom been relevant in this town and it sure as hell isn’t in this debate.
The Courier piece showed, first, that the council officers and the developers are already starting their campaign to influence the councillors; and second, that the Courier is complicit.
We need to get moving. This time, unless we respond quickly, they might actually succeed in building - at huge cost - a white elephant which will destroy our town.
(The Strategic Perspectives report is available here: http://www.warwickdc.gov.uk/WDC/Planning/
Geoff Renshaw in the Leamington Society's newsletter http://leamingtonsociety.org.uk/Newsletters/
August%202013%20Newsletter.pdf provides a reasoned, informed and compelling response which I commend to you.
Also, you can download the Grimsey Report at http://towns.org.uk/files/