I went to a Public meeting organised by Cornwall County Council the other evening. I even signed up to speak which felt like a big step out of my normal comfort zone.
There are three proposed plans for new supermarkets on the western edges of St. Austell. The biggest, and the most contentious proposal, is Coyte Farm because as a planning application it’s supermarket and a massive retail park as well. Making it bigger than St. Austell’s Town Centre retail area as it is.
Out of 218 attendees at the meeting 47 people had signed up to give their two pence worth. The for and against the Coyte Farm proposal, I thought, were pretty even split. The other two applications really didn’t feature in anyone’s minds at all.
I went because the gist of a piece in my local newspaper had really irked me. The slant of the feature was “Love St. Austell, Stop Coyte Farm.”
It irritated me because there are sadly more people who’d say that they hate St. Austell, than those who claim to love it.
…So, who in their right mind, except a blinkered minority, would come up with a rallying cry like that? It made me cross because it said that “shoppers were disloyal not to be supporting their local town” and that if we let Coyte Farm be built it would kill the town.” I was incensed enough to write a letter on the topic to the local paper. My point was balanced. I wasn’t for or against but I said that Coyte Farm might also be the greatest opportunity the town had ever had and it shouldn’t be rejected before understanding the bigger picture.
FIRSTLY, I’m a bit hesitant as the next person about saying ‘yes’ to ripping up green fields to build supermarkets and shopping centres; but I can’t stand scaremongering without genuine evidence either… To me is it disingenuous, as the people most interested in blocking retail development are the ones who fear competition and worry that they might have to work a bit harder to draw to customers and business to the town.
I could understand people getting up in arms if this was a vibrant little town, full of independent specialist shops, but it ain’t. The line: “This development is going to rip the heart out of St. Austell” might have had resonance if this was Truro. Instead the general response from local people is, “Why would I worry about saving St. Austell when there’s nothing here to save?”
The nub of the issue is that St. Austell’s shopping town centre, like scores of small towns across the UK, is struggling. And just like everywhere else, people generally love where they live and will loyally defend their home town if anyone else choses to rubbish it…. so no news there. St. Austell’s not unique. Except that in Cornwall it is significant. This is the county’s largest urban area, and we’ve all been longing to make this town something special. Special enough that we even bid for city status in The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Year. Scratch the surface and the loyalty to the town is here alright.
BUT, and this is to cut a long story short: I have lived in St. Austell, practically all of my life – I was baptised in the town’s church – and have known it well over 40 years. Hand on heart, I’ve seen this town decline for 30 years from a lively little town to a sad and rather dreary place to shop.
AND, I would like to be proud of where I live (and generally I am). But where I’ll happily tell everyone I live in Cornwall, I often gloss over the fact I’m from St. Austell.
My son once came home from school near to tears. “Only scum live in St. Austell,” he’d been told. It’s harsh and I was angry to have it implied that I am scum and that I’ve chosen to bring up my children in a town only to have them labelled as scum too. But that’s kids for you, isn’t it? Except that the town has another wider reputation as ‘St. Awful’. It’s difficult to shake, even if all who live here agree that it is ‘St. Actually-quite-nice’.
HOWEVER, St. Austell has been blighted by appalling decision makers with short-termed views and self-interest over the years and these people are just as prevalent as they ever were. It started with the rejection of Marks & Spencer in the 1960s because it threatened the local shopkeepers (although I’ve been told this is rumour not fact)… the net result is that St. Austell (i.e. those who were in power to take strategic decisions) have never taken ownership for the town’s failure, it is always something other – be it the building of a Tesco and Asda, Par Market, not having a Town Council and so on, that has caused its failure to thrive and continual decline. Coyte Farm will just be another convenient scapegoat. “It’s not us, it’s them.”
It took 7 long years to rather expensively build the new White River development in the town centre with a new cinema and shops. There was a lot of hope that it would turn the place around but the final plan was immensely unpopular and the people felt disenfranchised because despite all of the public consultation meetings, we never got what we asked for: an iconic, undercover shopping area that would have made us a destination. When it finally opened we were right in the middle of the recession and consequently its new shopping units have never all been filled because the sad fact is that they are too big and expensive for the independents and too small, and without sufficient footfall and consumer spend, for strong retail brands to take them up. It’s true, its brought more people back to town, but much of that boost has come through putting on events, reducing the parking charges and then new 99p store!
I came away from the meeting, after all my research and careful fence-sitting, leaning on the side of the proposed new Coyte Farm development and I’ll tell you why:
- St. Austell has always been too quick to say ‘no’. We’ve become a town with a negative reputation and its high time we showed the courage to take a ‘transformational change’ decision if any more investors are ever going take St. Austell seriously.
- Take the personal out of it. This is not about me or my intended shopping habits even if I do want Sainsbury’s and M&S nearby. It’s about opportunities for young people, for familes and the whole of the community . St. Austell may be the largest urban area but it’s shopping centre is hemorrhaging at the seams. It has no draw from the wider area and even its own townsfolk flock to Truro or Plymouth for their retail therapy. Draw people back to the area and it creates more jobs, more local spending power, more business’ benefit, house prices rise and generally the whole area becomes more desirable and better valued.
- View it as an opportunity. Why, for heaven’s sake does the Chamber of Commerce and Town Council throw up their hands and cry: “It will kill us?” Surely the obvious approach is to negotiate. It is not in the developers interest that the Town Centre should fail. Negative equity has ripples and it affects the whole community. So ask them what they will do to help support the Town Centre to thrive as well?
- Competition makes for better, smarter business. Survivors in this harsh and rapidly changing retail world are those who adapt and innovate to take a more customer centric approach. Perhaps the lack of ‘shopper loyalty’ is actually the result of a ‘lack of customer focus.’ People do want to shop in and support their local town and therefore is it disappointing to find the town doesn’t offer what they need and forces them to look elsewhere. I live 2 minutes on foot from the town centre and I’d say that 90 % of my non-food shopping is done online or in Truro because St. Austell’s lovely traders (not I don’t want them to fail) insist on filling their shops with things I don’t generally want to buy at all or very often. Most independent retailers get so fixated on themselves in a kind of product vanity, that they take no time to understand consumers and how can they improve the lives of their potential customer rather than their own. Yes, it’s an inevitability that a new retail park will affect the trade in the town centre when it first opens. On the other hand, not having the retail park means that millions of pounds of potential trade is already being lost to Truro, Plymouth and out of Cornwall through internet sales. By drawing people to St. Austell, via a retail park, means you keep the spend within St. Austell and all local business has the potential to reap the benefit.
- What do we risk? If you support the ‘no’ campaign you believe that we risk the death of the Town Centre just as it is struggling to get back on its feet. “Wrong time, wrong place” is the argument against it and “Give us another 5 years is the plea.” But what if in 5 years time, and without Coyte Farm, the Town Centre is no better? What if it were worse? Who would be blamed? No one can predict the future and in a world-changing faster than it ever has in human history…treat anyone who tells what it will be like with skepticism because they can’t know. The only helpful prediction of the future is to looks at trends. Less of what has gone before, but what’s emerging. Examples of town centres that have died after out-of-town centre development were built have to be looked at in context. Big retail shops may have a magnetic pull, but other shops drive customers away because fail to keep their customer’s interest. That’s why, as the experts tell us, shopping giants such as HMV have failed. Maybe these town centres died because they behaved like dinosaurs and refused to accept their customers were changing and they would need to adapt and evolve or become extinct?
I can’t predict the future except that nothing stays the same. Saying ‘yes’ to Coyte Farm will change the landscape and houses will follow. The Primary School I attended surrounded by farmland (we were once taken to see the cows being milked at Coyte Farm) won’t be the same, the little country Church I was married in will be engulfed and St. Austell will creep west. It will be different but it’s what’s needed. Leaving my personal regrets aside, we need a magnet, if this town is going to realistically market itself and be taken seriously as ‘St. Awesome.’
Forget the other supermarket proposals on the table that won’t add value but will make the approach roads to the town more congested and hazardous to the local Primary School my children all attended. Like or or not a development such as Coyte Farm is what this super town deserves.