Anger grows at ‘farcical’ Costa Coffee decision for Southwold

Campaigners have criticised the decision to allow Costa Coffee to open in Southwold as anger rippled through the town in the wake of a controversial council meeting.

One group called for a review of the way Waveney District Council handled the company's application, amid claims that a key objection document was not included and that the voting process was 'farcical'.

It comes after more than 100 people were ordered to leave the meeting of the council's development control committee on Tuesday night after one councillor was reduced to tears.

Businesses leaders and campaigners fear that the decision to allow Costa Coffee to open at 70 High Street will pave the way for more national chains to move into the town, posing a greater threat to its 'unique character'.

The mayor of Southwold Michael Ladd said the risk of losing the town's individuality was now a 'real concern' and he has encouraged people to 'think with their feet' when the new caf� opens.

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It is a view shared by the chairman of the Southwold Chamber of Trade, Guy Mitchell, who is urging shoppers to boycott the national chain and support the town's independent food and coffee providers.

But John Perkins, the secretary of the Southwold and Reydon Society, has called for a review of the way in which the decision was arrived at. He is furious that coffee shop survey conducted by the society was not included on the meeting's agenda.

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He said: 'The way Waveney totally left out our submission is unforgivable. That was after we called to make sure they had received it. In my view, the way the meeting was run was scandalous. We felt the planning team bullied the councillors into a decision by telling them that they would have no hope of winning an appeal.

'What happened with the vote at the end of the meeting was farcical – it bought the councillors and democracy into disrepute and I am not just saying that because we lost. We are now looking at the possibility of a public inquiry or taking the case to the local government ombudsman, but that is a complex procedure.'

At the meeting on Tuesday, a packed public gallery at Lowestoft Town Hall heard that 614 letters of objection and seven letters of support had been submitted in response to Costa Coffee's application.

But the district council's officers advised councillors there were no planning grounds to refuse the application.

There was anger in the public gallery when it was thought a proposal to refuse the application had been accepted, only for the vote to be taken again because it was felt some councillors did not know what they were voting for.

The development control committee was then divided, with six councillors voting against and six voting in favour, while Patricia Flegg chose to abstain.

The final decision was therefore left in the hands of committee chairman John Groom, who concluded that Costa Coffee should not be stopped from opening in the town.

A new proposal to approve the plans was then pushed through after Mrs Flegg changed her mind and voted in favour of the coffee shop opening – with seven councillors in favour and six against.

The meeting was quickly adjourned while the public gallery was cleared as people rose from their seats and shouted at the councillors, including Mrs Flegg who left the room in tears.

But Mr Perkins said the strength of feeling in Southwold ran deeper than the anger over the decision. He said: 'There's the anger, but then there is the real concern about the effect on the High Street and what will happen.

'The great fear is Southwold will have a clone high street like any other and lose its individuality.

'Because Costa have deep pockets they can go through the difficult winter months without worrying, while some independent coffee shops may struggle to survive and have to shut up shop.'

Mr Ladd said: 'We were very disappointed about it because it was turned down two months ago. People wanted to support Southwold but restricted by the planning policy.

'Going forward, I think we need to look at having a better dialogue with Waveney District Council. Southwold will survive, and hopefully people will think with their feet in the future as well.'

Mr Mitchell said: 'What we hope now is that people will continue to support our local independent coffee providers in the same way they supported local shops with the arrival of Tesco and WH Smith.'

A spokesman for Waveney District Council insisted there was nothing wrong with the organisation of the meeting and said the noise from the public gallery had caused councillors to become confused. He also dismissed concerns that the SRS survey was not included on the agenda, saying the report was read out during the meeting.

A spokesman added: 'Any complaints about whether the decision was democratic or not does show a basic misunderstanding of the way that planning decisions must legally be made. It cannot be about the weight of support or opposition to a particular proposal, but has to be based solely on national and local planning policies.'

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