Have your say: Were councillors right to refuse Asda development in Norwich?
The Norwich Evening News is today asking you, our readers, to have your say on one of the most controversial planning decisions in the city in recent times.
Plans for a new Asda superstore on the former Bally Shoe site, near Tuckswood, along with community facilities and other shops, were voted down 5-4 at a planning meeting last week.
The refusal sparked a backlash, with Norwich City Council leader Brenda Arthur claiming that the committee had turned its back on up to 400 jobs for Norwich.
The Evening News has reported on widespread anger from residents and community groups in the area, who felt that a crucial opportunity to regenerate the area, which has long been derelict, had been missed.
But speaking to Evening News yesterday, the five councillors (four Greens and one Liberal Democrat) who voted against the application said they had taken the right decision for the future of the city. Asda said it was still considering its options regarding an appeal.
Today, the Norwich Evening News is launching a special vote to ask readers whether or not the planning committee’s decision was right.
Speaking last night, council leader Mrs Arthur said she was “still baffled” that the committee “couldn’t see jobs before polar ice caps”.
She reiterated her belief that the development would have brought new business into the city from outside, and created jobs through its construction, adding: “Ultimately, the responsibility must lie with those who were there, not those who weren’t.” Council officers had recommended that the committee approve the plans because of their economic and community benefits, despite them being in contravention to the council’s own planning policies.
Green councillor Stephen Little, who suggested the motion for refusal, said the planning committee had “a duty to protect the interests of the city,” and criticised Ms Arthur’s reaction as “outrageous”.
Leader explains councillor absences
Three councillors were absent from last Thursday’s meeting, including Labour’s Mike Sands and Jenny Lay, who could have swung the decision had they voted in line with their four party colleagues.
Labour leader Brenda Arthur, pictured, said: “I always knew that one of the members wasn’t going to be able to be there because of a long-standing work commitment. The other member had planned to be there but at the last minute was unable to attend owing to illness. We have one named substitute councillor, who was also unable to attend at such short notice.” Ms Arthur said the party was not allowed to enforce the whip on councillors, but warned: “Given my fury at this not going through, my group will be quite clear that there will be full attendance in future.”
He said the proposals went against the council’s agreed policies, and that the inefficient use of brownfield land which would result in ill-planned urban sprawl on to greenfield sites in future.
He added: “When you turn down an application you are not saying never: you are saying not this application, not now.”
Mr Little argued the development would “change the culture of the city”, hitting city-centre entrepreneurs and traders who are currently encouraged and protected by planning policy.
He added: “I think the decision was a brilliant one because it makes people stop and think about the direction we are going. We do not want to emerge from the recession with a poorly-planned city.”
The supermarket’s net floor space of 3,406 sq m was also significantly larger than the 1,300 sq m shop which had been identified by the council previously, he said. The proposal included plans for a pub, a gym, community centre and 334-space car park, with an estimated 400 jobs on the site.
However, Green councillor Neil Blunt questioned the job figures, which were stressed by Ms Arthur in the wake of the decision. He said: “We have not got a spontaneous expansion of consumption just because Asda opens a new store.”
He said any new plans should include a smaller supermarket and car park, improved community facilities and new homes, which had been part of earlier versions of the proposals.
“People deserve a more sensitive store than that particular Asda store would have delivered. It’s not a great design, and it’s yet another supermarket where there could be a genuine range of social amenities, and could be better configured so as not to be such a magnet for cars.”
Mr Blunt said he had gone to the meeting with an open mind, but had been persuaded by Mr Little’s arguments. “The Labour party were prepared to throw out a lot of agreed strategies in the way the city needs to go forward, in order to get a cheap hit,” he added.
Liberal Democrat Caroline Ackroyd, the sole non-Green to vote for refusal, said she expected the supermarket to return with a second bid, and conceded: “Ultimately I can see that we will go ahead with Asda, but with a revised and improved plan.”
She added: “With a large company like Asda, let’s persuade them to do a bit more for the site if they are going to develop it.
“We should be looking for the future even in times of recession, and maximising the site so that we can be proud of it in future – so that it’s useful and Norwich people really benefit from it.”
She said an improved plan would include housing options, better access for pedestrians and cyclists and a smaller car park.
Councillor David Rogers, who also opposed the plans, said the potential jobs boost was a “zero-sum game”, with other businesses likely to shed employees.
He added: “The problem is that Walmart [Asda’s parent company] come along and say ‘Here’s 400 jobs – take them or leave them.’ It takes more thought and consideration than that. Once people understand the context of the decision, they are sympathetic to it.”
Lucy Howard, the fifth councillor to vote down the plans, questioned the long-term sustainability of supermarket jobs, and said the poor pedestrian and cycle access ran contrary to planning policies seeking to encourage those activities.
A spokesman for Asda said the company had not reached a decision on whether it would appeal and was “taking time to consider the options”.