Love St. Austell or loath it, why does Coyte Farm divide so much opinion?

What do people really think about the Coyte Farm development? Are greater number for it or against it?

Depending on which side of the fence you sit, Coyte Farm has been put forward as  the best opportunity for St. Austell for a generation  and the very worse threat on the other? It’s both the saviour of this town and our damnation? So evangelical the nature of the debate that the ‘Love St. Austell, Stop Coyte Farm’ supporters would have it implied that you can’t do both. 

I’d really like to be able to leave this topic alone, but it has become like an itching sore and the more entrenched, polarised and blinkered the views become, the more I’m inclined to want to scratch it.

I’ve been well and truly been given the cold shoulder by the Anti Coyte Farm protestors who used to try to engage with me. Probably after I managed to summon up the courage – alone and without my bringing along  supporters – to speak up at the 2nd Cornwall Council public meeting on the subject on 30th October. I was number 25 on a long list of 63 people who signed up to speak.

Why does Coyte Farm represents many different things to different people?  In a nutshell these are the sum of all the views:

  • It’s the opportunity to have a better class or bigger retailers closer to St. Austell. We’re fed up of having to go to Truro for such shops.
  • Significant investment in a town that has the largest population in Cornwall and has suffered continuous decline in the past 30 years. Around a million pounds a week of potential spend in St. Austell is being lost to Truro.
  • It’s a catastrophic, out of scale retail park that will kill St. Austell’s town centre, destroy small businesses and the social heart of our town.
  • It’s unsustainable: the population of Cornwall and the amount of money to spend cannot support additional retail of such scale. Shops in St. Austell and other towns, Liskeard, Wadebridge, Bodmin, Lostwithiel etc.  will lose their own trade as a result.
  • The loss valuable farmland that should be kept to grow food in the future as the population grows and we have less to eat; it’s a flooding risk to Polgooth and the Pentewan stream; and a danger to pedestrians, especially those walking to school.
  • It’s outside the planning boundaries, contravenes the town plan and there are brownfield sites that should be used instead.
  • It’s a threat to Truro as it will draw back some of the millions that this catchment area spends in Truro, and it will have an impact on Truro’s own development plans for further retail. 

I stayed for three hours and heard them all. It was a very civilised debate. Nobody heckled. Everyone was heard. For sure there were more who spoke up against Coyte than for it, and compared to the public meeting in January, the quality of arguments on either side were generally much more thought through, considered and intelligent. Where I’d swung more towards Coyte after the ridiculous arguments made at the last meeting… this time, listening to the alternatives for larger shopping retail closer to town, I was back on the fence again.Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 17.02.10

Here are the arguments put against Coyte Farm and the deliberation I put forward.

1.   “It will kill St. Austell.”

We cannot blame Coyte, which is still only a planning application…I’ve known St. Austell for my whole life (almost half a century) and Coyte will most definitely not kill St. Austell.

To be absolutely clear, I mean the whole of St. Austell – the area and it’s population – not merely White River Place and the old town centre.

The thing this town needs is investment and every offer of such has to be very carefully considered on how it will improve the economic and social welfare of St. Austell.

The trouble is with all the laying blame in the past is that it blinds us from facing the present situation and diverts our energy from preparing for an increasingly changing future.

Why are the big supermarkets so successful? Because they have to be mindful of their rivals and responsive to social change and the demands of us: their customers. These grocery stores now have cafés, sell us wine, clothing and household wares, have online shops and provide banking, travel money, insurance services.  Everything that town centres once were, but made vastly more convenient. Supermarkets also predict future growth and where it is likely to come from.  The growing population size and the attractiveness of Cornwall to bring in more people to live, develop or relocate business, and the potential of an area to become more affluent.

If it were possible to make St. Austell operate like a supermarket.  The council with St. Austell’s landlords and retailers would have to pull together and follow this example, seek to have a competitive edge and operate with a common purpose St. Austell would win back shoppers as a viable alternative.  Added to which the town would be a more enjoyable experience, than our soulless supermarkets.  What is killing the town centre is negativity: poor image, parking charges, lack of imagination. If Sainsbury’s and M&S want to come to St. Austell it’s because they know that the right demographic currently live in the area and more of the same will come to live here.

The strongest argument against Coyte Farm say that as an out-of-town shopping centre it will kill St. Austell’s town centre. They forget the fact that St. Austell already has an out-of-town shopping centre that is killing us: it’s called Truro where the majority of the town’s more affluent population chose to shop and they haven’t set foot in town for ages.

St. Austell is currently a plastic bucket full of holes. It appears to have nothing of offer of value and lets opportunity seep away to shop elsewhere. The few pennies not lost through the holes get spent in Poundland and the 99p store.  In the absence of significant serious retail opportunities, we fail to keep the majority of our local population local, and  St. Austell’s shopping centre will continue to be vulnerable. Turn our back on Coyte for the sake of nostalgia or in the belief that local businesses can be saved without it is not a good move. All signs of improvement over the next 12mths, 5 years and into the future will continue to wax and wane and other future investment opportunities that we need to grasp in an attempt to put St. Austell back on the map will be fewer and further between.

2.    “It will destroy valuable farmland and green fields.”

Coyte Farm amounts to 98 acres.  Agricultural land split by the A390 and, sadly, is not large enough nowadays for a farmer to make a viable living. It has been said that the Coyte development is massive, I can only assume this is because calculations were made on the total area of the farm. Perhaps that’s how the conclusion was reached that it would be the third largest retail space in Cornwall and a bigger shopping area than the existing St Austell town centre.

The retail park including the new road improvements that will make access to St. Mewan School safer and easier, and landscaping to reduce the environmental impact is actually about 24 acres in all. I know this because I bothered to work it out using a Google map calculation tool. This amounts to about three fields mostly hidden from the approach view just as the Recycling centre on Tregongeeves Lane is hidden from view. I’ve been amazed and horrified how easily people accept what they are told rather than checking these things for themselves.

I’m also of the belief that nothing is for ever. We just can’t imagine the future. When the world changes to the extent where land to grow food is more necessary to our existence than cars and supermarkets we humans are clever enough to grown food in other ways we may not imagine, or will have removed the concrete and tarmac and sought the earth again.

3.    “The shops that want to come to Coyte can be accommodated in White River Place and on brownfields sites within the town.”

It is a big pity that White River Place doesn’t have M&S or Primark etc. I’m fairly certain that if it made good commercial sense to be in St. Austell they would have taken the opportunity to be in town already.

In all the so-called independent reports I’ve read, I’ve had to unpick statements given as empirical evidence that Coyte will have a negative effect on the town.  The scary part is that the quality of these ‘expensively produced’ reports is, in my own view crammed with ambiguous quantitive statistics presented as definitive evidence to tell us how much other retail is likely to lose out on. They are all deeply lacking in qualative data. None really prove anything, as they are not balanced by how much St. Austell already looses to Truro and so forth and how much spend Coyte could bring back to the town as a whole.

They’ve used examples to suggest Coyte will have an adverse effect on St. Austell that are irrelevant to Cornwall (I think it’s more important to reference Hayle – has that out-of-town retail park had an adverse or positive effect on Hayle?). I’ve looked at Margate. Google it yourselves. It’s really not comparable as a real example – scale and context – by any stretch of the imagination. Balance has to show cases where out-of-town shopping has improved the quality of an area as well as those that don’t so that the the likely impact, positive and negative, can be properly predicted in this case and plans adjusted accordingly.

They also ignore the topography of the town completely. The town centre is wrapped around the side of a hill. White River Place has helped to increase the amount of level shopping area, however in these reports some of the possible sites are absurd. People won’t walk uphill between retail areas, especially if the route is not lined with other shops they are likely to visit on the way.

No report examines if Coyte might improve the overall economy of the whole of St. Austell? The fact is that turning our backs on Coyte will have a much more damaging effect on St. Austell’s regeneration and reputation which is, frankly, pretty poor. Without a retail magnet, people won’t come back to shop and people won’t want to come here to live which means that the value of our homes is also suppressed.

I’m not saying that St. Austell should say ‘yes’ without asking lots questions. Potential flooding, busier roads, the environmental impact and the effect on the town centre are all negatives that have to be offset as much as possible. And it is important that the developers’ offered investment of ½ million to the town centre is used to the best possible effect. Ultimately, this is a one of a kind opportunity to bring credibility back to the area.

I said back in January that Coyte shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. I was advocating an open-minded view but I was accused of not knowing what I was talking about. So I’ve been very careful to read the reports and listen to all the arguments and do my own research. I have no agenda – so I have nothing to personally gain. I don’t run a business – but I am sympathetic to those who do and are struggling; I’m not being paid to voice my opinion. I just live here and I choose to live here is because I love St. Austell and wish to invest my livelihood in my local area.

Ultimately it cemented my view that a decision has to be made. On balance I would much prefer to see Coyte get its approval, with stringent conditions attached. For the sake of the whole of  St.  Austell  I believe this plan is better than the alternative without it.

However, after the meeting I have to add a post script. An alternative proposal  to Coyte is a possibility. It’s not without great merit but is it ultimately better in the immediate and the long-term?

To be honest, I’m not sure.

Next, we were told, could be interested in the Halfords Store near B&Q; M&S Food might come into White River Place; the  Restormel Offices could be pulled down to create another supermarket or Higher Trewhiddle Farm – where Westcountry Land have a similar scheme for housing and would like to include a petrol station and supermarket…. The proximity to the centre of the town is closer and some use brownfield sites.  I have to remain uncertain as the arguments to suggest these were better were put forward by the very developers and owners of these schemes. Plus, we’ve had Master Plans made for St. Austell before that resulted in nothing other than the same situation of stagnation that we had before.

More debate.

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