Lerwick town centre could become a ghost town with a “poor image” if Tesco is allowed to become a one-stop-shop, Laurence Smith of the Lerwick Town Centre Association told the community council yesterday.
Mr Smith said empty shops and more charity shops could result if Tesco is allowed to sell non-food items in its new extension, due to begin opening this week.
He hit out at the retail giant, saying it was flouting its planning application by intending to sell “personal goods” in a much greater area than the 185 square metres currently permitted.
The planning application, he said, had been for “convenience goods” only, specified by Tesco as food and drink, cigarettes and tobacco, kitchen and cleaning products, pet food and newspapers and magazines.
But now it had turned out that Tesco planned to sell, among other things, books, car care products, homeware, phones, TVs and other electrical items, health and beauty items, toys and clothing. Clothing, he said, would have a “whole new area supposed to be for a staff room”.
Head of planning Iain McDiarmid said later that nothing could be done before the extension breached any planning agreements. He said: “We understand the concerns of LTCA and expect any developer to stick to what they applied for and had permission for. We will be keeping an eye on what’s happening, our building standards people are there on a daily basis.”
Mr Smith said that to retain the “vitality and viability” of Lerwick’s historic town centre, the sale of non-food items must remain strong.
He, and other local retailers, will “struggle” he said, if Tesco’s expansion in non-food items goes ahead. He cited Tom Worthington of Conochie’s, who predicted “losses are inevitable”, the staff of electrical retailer George Robertson who said they will not be able to compete and “it will be damaging to long-established local businesses” and staff of the Camera Centre, who had seen shops affected in similar circumstances on the mainland.
And owner of Clive’s Record Shop Clive Munro said: “People may think Tesco being allowed to stock whatever they want will lead to greater choice and lower prices but the reality is that it will lead inevitably to less choice and the ghost town scenario will be that much more likely.”
Lerwick’s town centre was already “fragile”, Mr Smith said, and a large out of centre retailer could have a huge impact on a small town – a report from Wick, Caithness, where Tesco had been established, said the town centre was “absolutely dead”.
Mr Smith indicated that Tesco had said in May 2008 that there would be an increase of 33 per cent in retail floorspace. By June 2008 it had told the council it would be 50 per cent – in December 2008 it was 70 per cent and in April this year it was 80 per cent.
Scottish Planning Policy states that “out of centre locations should only be considered if it can be demonstrated that there will be no adverse effect on the vitality and viability of existing centres”.
And the Shetland Local Plan insists that an independent retailing study (carried out at the applicant’s expense) has demonstrated that the town centre would not be prejudiced, and the applicant signs an agreement limiting the amount of non-food shopping space.
The plan states: “[T]he council recognises personal shopping has a key role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant town centre. If the personal goods sector is allowed to decentralise, the long-term vitality and viability of the town centre would be seriously compromised.”
Tesco submitted an impact study with its planning application. However, Mr Smith said, the study was based on the sale of “convenience goods only”. Tesco went on to say that its impact study “provides a robust assessment of the potential effect of the proposal upon the vitality and viability of the town centre and concluded that ” that there would not be any significant impact on the town centre of Lerwick.
But Mr Smith said the impact study was clearly now in question.
He said the “aggressive” supermarket appeared to have no respect for either national policy or the local plan and a one-stop-shop would be “disastrous” for the town centre. “It’s a very real, very serious issue.” It was essential to keep non-food as a town centre strength and to develop a retail strategy for the area, he said.
He appealed for the community council to share the association’s concern for the historic town centre, to recognise Tesco’s plans were at variance with their planning application and to recognise the knock-on effect.
Community councillor Jonathan Wills said: “All we can do is express sympathy [for the LTCA]. We have been assured by planning that the conditions would be enforced. Planning conditions are imposed for good reason. If these are now being undermined [the sale of non-food goods] will have to be stopped.
“We will be in touch with the planning department to ensure the conditions are adhered to.”
Tesco had “severely damaged” the centre of Alloa, he said, but remarked that the supermarket would never have the “ambience” of the street.
Member Billy Stove said the issue was “up to the planners”, and said that the street should move “upmarket”. And member Robbie Leith said he agreed, and felt that the street had already lost vitality. Car parking was another problem in the town centre, he said.
Mr Smith agreed a retail strategy and a parking strategy needed to be looked at, and it was also time to review the pedestrianisation of Commercial Street.