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Sixty jobs set to go as Harlow Council reject Marks and Spencers new store bid

Business / Thu 23rd Oct 2014 at 09:10am

By Siobhan Wood

HARLOW Council rejected a planning application for a Marks and Spencer (M and S) food store in Edinburgh Way and in doing so may have cost the town over fifty jobs.

It appears that last minute negotiations between Harlow MP Robert Halfon and M and S, were not enough as the councillors based their decisions on the constraints of planning rules.

Every single councillor on the planning committee voted to refuse the planning application.

Those rules were laid down as follows:

The main issues to consider in respect of these applications are whether the proposal represents sustainable development, is in compliance with the sequential test, impact on vitality and viability of the town centre….and then matters obtaining to parking and highway safety.

A Harlow Council officer explained what “The sequential test” meant.

She said: “This looks to explore town centre first development, moving to the edge of the centre if the town centre’s not suitable and only once these areas have been fully explored should out of centre locations be considered. The sequential test is designed to promote the town centre first to ensure the ongoing vitality of the town centre.

“There are two sites within the town centre that can be readily adapted to accommodate floor space and delivery mechanisms which are required by a Simply Food store..

“The applicant states that a level car park is essential and is unwilling to be flexible on this point, regardless of the fact that many of the Simply Food stores do not have such parking provision.

“Many do not have the parking provision Harlow town centre has which is within easy walking distance of the site proposed.

“It can only be concluded that the sequential test is inadequate as there are suitable alternatives sites within the town centre and the applicant is demonstrating a lack of flexibility in their approach to this test.

“Impact on the town centre must also be considered. There is no control over the closing of the existing M&S store if that’s the way in which they wish to go but it is fair to say that this is a strong brand within the town centre and its presence helps underpin the overall attraction, vitality, viability and competitive edge of the town centre.

A spokesperson for Sapphire Harlow Nominee Limited, the owners of the Harvey Centre and also Standard Life, owners of the Water Gardens spoke to the committee.

He said: “The application is very detailed full of technical points, but the issues are quite simple. Planning policy is clear: it is about putting the town centres first and about encouraging sustainable development. The proposals by M&S do neither.

“As I’m sure members are aware, our client has invested considerably in the Harvey Centre, improving its attraction to shoppers. They’ve also invested heavily in incentives to attend to ensure the Harvey Centre maintains its existing occupiers and attracts new ones to town centre.

“You will also be aware of our client’s proposal to bring a new cinema and a range of restaurants to the town centre in Harlow which are in delicate stages of negotiations.

“Many of the retailers in the Harvey Centre have also invested their own money. Primark, Tesco, Wilkinson and Argos to name just a few have all spent significant sums in recent years to improve their offer and of course their performance.

“Primark refurbished their store with a five million pound injection and trades extremely well. So with investment there are clearly opportunities. It’s clear then that both our clients and our tenants have confidence in Harlow town centre and will continue there to see it thrive.

“They put Harlow town centre first. It’s disappointing that M&S does not share this.

They haven’t invested in their premises for many years and rather than do so they propose to leave. By their own admission, they have not considered alternative sites within the town centre or held discussions with land owners.

“Our clients have recently been given permission to demolish Little Walk and this will provide an excellent opportunity to keep them in the town in whatever form they wish.

The next speaker was Head of Property at M&S, Adam Colton

Mr Colton said: “I would like to explain the background to our proposal for a new simply food store at the Queensgate centre. We have had a long association with Harlow town centre and we first started trading here in 1969.

“Trading levels however of our town centre store have been declining over a sustained period in real terms by 30% over the last seven years. This decline in turnover has been related to the impact of the water gardens opening and the consequent shift in the retail pitch away from our current location from the early 2000s.

“While objectors have criticised us for not investing in the town centre store, its trading performance is simply not that we could not justify an increase in the cost space of the store with no likely return.

“The Harlow store is an underperforming store and we have reached a situation where we need to take action.

“We want to retain a store in Harlow, and continue to provide an M&S service to customers and to retail the jobs for those existing employees in Harlow. The only way we can do this is through the relocation to a new Simply Food store selling food and drink.

“We do not make this decision lightly, as closing the town centre store will inevitably mean that in the short term we may lose some trade especially in clothing. However for the medium to long term this is the only commercial solution for our business. The new simply food store will also mean that shoppers can pick up non-food goods locally they’ve bought on the internet though click and collect.

“We employee 63 staff in our town centre store and we will offer all the existing staff jobs in the new store.

“It is clear from the comments made by objectors and the council retail consultants that there are some misconceptions about our current programme of Simply Food stores.

“Over the last five years 40 of 41 new Simply Food stores we have opened have surface level parking. The absence of adjacent surface level parking is the reason why converting our town centre store to a Simply Food simply would not work.

At this point, cllr Christine O’Dell (Labour) asked the key question.

“Just for clarification, would you close the town centre store if the application is turned down?

Mr Colton replied “As I’m sure you’ll understand I have to use very particular wording to respond to that.

“So in this situation we will opening consultation with an M&S employee representative on the proposal to close the existing Harlow store.

Labour councillor Jean Clark offered her comments: “This is an extremely important planning application for the people of Harlow, not just for M&S itself, because it is an anchor store and that affects the vitality and viability of the town’s centre in general.

“I agree with the officers that sustainability is absolutely crucial in economic, social and environmental terms. In economic terms it will in my opinion have a harmful impact on the town centre if it moves to Queensgate and also on its own economic development.

“I think there is a comment that over half of the revenue comes from the food hall and that’s without any investment at all of this two million pounds; that in itself is an argument for remaining in the town centre and using the existing site, improving the existing site, which would also assist the 63 staff, provide more security of jobs and also they have the use of a bus service.

“It has been argued somewhere here by M&S that there can be a reliance on buses – that is not the case. If we look at social inclusion this is also a major, major factor which has been completely neglected by M&S. I live just ten minutes’ walk away from Queensgate. I travel frequently along Edinburgh Way and I have never seen a bus in use along that route.

Cllr Muriel Jolles (Cons) echoed cllr Clark’s sentiment.

She said: “I would like to reiterate what Maggie and Sue said. I don’t know whether or not the M&S crew have understood just how Harlow is beginning to buzz.

“We’ve got the best sixth form college, young kids: change your produce and make it younger. Secondly you’ve got the food and you can have it in little walk, you can build up something as big as three storey place before Debenhams or John Lewis get into it. We’ve got not just 1000, 2000 houses coming, we’ve got around about 18,000 houses that are going to be built around Harlow and the place is buzzing, we’ve got our first university. We’re getting in the picture, we’re getting a lot of investment.

“It’s such a pity that you’re pulling out when it’s just going to begin, and it’s a shame but you say it’s a commercial interest. It’s not China, it’s not Russia, you can do what you want, we can’t stop you, but it’s such a shame and you will be sorry.

UKIP cllr Jerry Crawford slammed Marks and Spencers for their “attitude”

Cllr Crawford said: “I re-iterate what all cllrs have said. I think I would question what M&S’ attitude was towards this store in the town centre.

“They started there in 1969 and it would appear that we’re now in the year 2014 and it’s still stuck in the 1970s. There’s been no investment made in that store at all.

It is very tired and I think that must impact on what customers think. You might have nice M&S expensive suits in there but if the décor is shabby people aren’t going to stay around to buy.

“So I think that the argument that for that reason trade’s gone down is probably self-defeating. I wonder whether M&S have actually listened to their customer insight unit which I understand they operate, because I’m sure if they’ve actually spoken to the current customers in the town centre store the majority of them would probably be unable to make their way down to Queensgate.

“Moving the food store down there would be self-defeating and it’s a non starter straight away. The last thing, I’ve gone through this very thorough document, the number of times I’ve written the words down: “no flexibility”.

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