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Inquiry Reports

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Day 28 – People of Kirkby ignored over stadium concerns

Mr. Peter Fisher asked that no weight be given to the letters as they were not produced into the inquiry in time and were used to undermine his witness. They should have been introduced as core documents; Mr. Clarkson wanted them given Inquiry Document status and was in fact using them as such. Planning Inspector Mr. Jackson informed Mr. Fisher that they were to be treated as such.

Mrs. Burden informed the inquiry that there had been an administrative error. They will not have special status but will be treated as ordinary written representation.

Mr. Fisher introduced Mr. Ian Smith, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Knowsley.

Mr. Smith explained that he had first been made aware of the potential development by Tesco in a letter from the chief executive in 2006.

Mr. Smith felt that KMBC had given preferential treatment to Tesco, Development Securities, the previous owner of the Town Centre and potential developers of a proposal that did not include a football stadium, were out of the loop.

He was invited to a public meeting on the plans in July 2007. He attended with Cllr Fricker and said a few words about Prescot. He felt the Cables retail park had split Prescot in half and had been detrimental to the traditional town centre.

He said it was clear there were very deep reservations about the football stadium on the Valley Road site. He agreed it was not normal to hold a ballot on developments but Prescot had been given a ballot in 1987 so it is not unprecedented. He explained that it was a way of accurately gauging how people felt on important matters. In this case, he thought a referendum would have been a better way of finding out how people really felt than a consultation and that it was clear people wanted a vote.

Mrs. Burden asked if local concerns were more about the stadium than the retail?

Mr. Smith said that they were and that Councillors had gone underground. Mrs. Burden replied that she was more concerned with people's views on the stadium than their views on Councillors.

Referring to Jeremy Williams' proof of evidence Mr. Smith said that Mr. Williams had said Knowsley Council regarded Cables retail park, in Prescot, as forming part of the town centre but he did not hold that view. He felt that Cables doesn't feel part of Prescot and that the town centre is struggling, it had high vacancy levels and was starting to look like a ghost town. There will be a further £6.1M from Prescot lost to Kirkby, if this project went ahead; Prescot can't afford to lose a single penny, either in their Town Centre or in Cables. The three Knowsley centres are meant to have equal status. The KRUDP is still the primary document that the council works to.

He thought this proposal would be better pursued through the Development Plan process.

Mr. Clarkson began his cross-examination of Mr. Smith.

He first of all asked if there are minutes on the group's position? Mr. Smith replied that all Councillors want regenerated town centres but suggested that people in Kirkby should be asked if they wanted the stadium. Ronnie Round (council leader) didn't want to know the answer. The council didn't want to ask people what they wanted.

Mr. Clarkson put it to Mr. Smith that the elected council supports the proposal and that Mr. Smith was just an individual expressing a view. He said the group's position was, in principle, to support the regeneration of Kirkby town centre - nobody could disagree with that. He said they had asked for specific questions in the consultation documents about whether local people wanted a stadium or not, but said they were denied this.

Mr. Clarkson next enquired about the ballot paper that the Liberal Democrats had put out and to which only 3% responded; Mr. Smith replied that 85% didn't want a stadium and Knowsley make decisions on smaller numbers than that. It had in fact had more respondents than George Howarth's poll.

Mr Smith agreed that KMBC had supported the proposal but thought they had been misled. He thought a lot of people were concerned about the stadium and the size of the retail development. He felt that his opinion should be given weight as he was leader of Prescot town council, was leader of the Liberal Democrats on KMBC and his ward bordered Kirkby. He said Tesco and Everton were trying to devalue the opinions of the people of Kirkby. He said he was trying to pass on the opinions of the people of Kirkby, who had contacted him, to say they did not feel they had the chance to express their views.

Mr. Barrett cross-examined Mr. Smith on behalf of Knowsley Council.

Mr Barrett asked to see the minutes of a meeting held where the Knowsley Constituency Liberal Democrat councillors decided their position on Destination Kirkby, Mr. Smith said he was happy to provide this information to the inquiry.

Once again the applicants were allowed to introduce evidence that they had failed to submit. Mr. Barrett referred to an e-mail dated May 2007 addressed to all the Liberal Democrat Councillors, which explained the group's position on the Kirkby proposals at that time. It was designed to be the only comment made to the media. It said, “In principle we feel this is a very positive proposal, it was a major investment that had the potential to revitalise the centre of Kirkby and create new jobs but without the stadium” It explained “the group would be in a better position to declare their position after the consultation.”

Mr. Smith told the inquiry he remembered the e-mail but he said it did not change his view that there should have been a referendum and if they had been in power, there would have been a referendum; he thought the regeneration of Kirkby town centre was “vital and long overdue” but he thought the development could do this without the presence of the stadium.

Of greater concern was the fact that the applicants had been allowed to introduce this evidence. Mr Jackson asked for the to be released. Mr. Barrett appeared to be the only person with a copy. Mr. Barrett was ordered to make copies available before adjournment.

Apparently Mr. Barrett later explained that Knowsley Council knew what Mr Smith was suggesting, regarding being supportive, was untrue and wanted the facts to be made clear; a pity this stance wasn't adopted on all matters concerning Destination Kirkby.

Mr Fisher clarified a couple of points with Mr. Smith. Mr. Fisher wanted to know what powers the planning committee have? Mr. Smith explained that the full council couldn't overturn planning decisions made by the committee and that on this occasion the council had contravened their policies by completely ignoring the findings of the consultation process.

Mr. Tom Norman addressed the inquiry on behalf of the Kirkby Traders Association.

Tom told the inquiry that there is a need for increased retail in Kirkby but not of this scale. He explained that Everton wouldn't be interested in Kirkby if they weren't getting £52M off Tesco and this whole scenario has become little more than a mad scramble for land with a real danger the existing town centre would not be regenerated.

Tom went on to explain that 100% population would welcome Tesco into the old Asda store. But that with this current proposal Kirkby town centre will sink into anonymity within 10 years. He said they would have to live with the decision or the problems it may cause and that it was important for this and the following generations that the decision was the correct one. Tom explained to the inquiry “plans to regenerate Kirkby would receive a resounding yes from local people but not plans of this magnitude.”

Tom explained that the KTA, which is the original KTA, surveyed 204 traders in the town center. The results were 17% for, 63% against and 20% didn't know.

He thought the only jobs specifically for local people were the 700 or so in the retail sector and would be mainly part time. He felt other jobs would go as a result of the competition and that self service tills coming in would mean even less part time jobs. He described just how detrimental the Tesco store and Cables Retail Park had been on Prescot town centre. He said many retailers had gone out of business as a result. He said Knowsley Council were aware of this yet seemed content to let the same thing happen in Kirkby.

In Prescot, the elderly can't access Cables Retail Park as it's too far to walk and they can't afford taxis. Prescot town centre is full of solicitors and opticians who have set up in the old shops. You can't actually buy anything.

Mr. Clarkson began his cross-examination by announcing that he challenged everything in Tom's statement.

In a thinly veiled bid to discredit the group Mr. Clarkson asked when the KTA were formed, wanted to see their constitution and asked for a list of their members.

Tom refused; he stated he was afraid of Councillors and Tesco. He had given list of names to the programme officer but did not want them revealed for fear of reprisals.

A theatrical Mr. Clarkson said that this was a monstrous suggestion and put it to Tom that the members didn't exist.

Tom explained that people would be victimized. One of our members had already lost a contract. I'm not going to subject members to further victimization.

KEIOC are full aware of the individual that lost a large commercial contract from Knowsley, the council placed the contract with a firm outside the borough.Mr. Barrett cross-examined Mr Norman, on behalf of Knowsley Council.

Mr Barrett said he wanted to correct a number of factual errors.

Mr Barrett highlighted information that showed the shift of emphasis in shopping in Prescot from the High Street to Eccleston Street and this had happened prior to the opening of Tesco. Eccleston Street was trading steadily and told the inquiry that vacancy rates had varied following the opening of Tesco, it had not been a steady decline. Tom replied, “it was not just about occupancy levels, it was about what was on offer in the town centre. Shops that had sold goods had changed to betting shops and charity shops.” Tom went on to state that you could make figures say anything; with more than a hint of irony, Mr. Barrett stated that this was exactly his point.

Mr. Dodd of KRISP then cross-examined Tom Norman.

Mr. Dodd asked Tom if he believed that this development would create only 700 jobs? Tom pointed out that this was the opinion of Tesco, not his.

Mr. Dodd then asked, “How did you reach your conclusion about job losses in the town centre?” Tom explained it was relatively simple; he had asked the traders about fears of losing business and their livelihoods, as they would be unable to compete with Tesco.

Ms. Irene Brand, the owner of a window blind shop in the town centre, addressed the inquiry.

Irene explained she was a proud member of the KTA. She had 2 shops and employed 20 local people. Her opinion was that phase four of the development, due to start as late as 2020 wouldn't happen. If it ever did, by then the town centre would be empty, a desert of lost businesses.

Irene explained that her business had been going for many years and that while she recognised competition was part of business life she felt this development would prevent people shopping in the existing town centre and have a detrimental effect on her and her employee's lives.

Rather than regeneration this development is going to lead to poverty, insecurity and unemployment. Irene asked the inquiry why should I pay £32,000 in rent and a £10,000 lease to someone who wants to put me out of business?

Mr. Patrick Clarkson cross-examined Ms. Irene Brand.

Mr. Clarkson asked, “How could Tesco put a blinds shop out of business; would Tesco be selling window blinds?” Irene replied that they didn't at the moment but who knows in the future. She didn't want to be in the town centre on her own. Also she had just been shown a map that had her shop demolished to make a walkthrough. She wanted to know what was going on. A somewhat surprised Mr. Clarkson didn't know but later explained that his enquiries had revealed that displaced businesses would be offered the chance to relocate. That's alright then.

Mr. Jason Keen, the proprietor of Trevor's card shop in the town centre, addressed the inquiry.

Jason explained his was a family business that had been in Kirkby for thirty-one years. Jason told the inquiry that the spread of supermarkets throughout the UK were putting small shops out of business and creating deserted town centres; this is a possibility at Kirkby. He offered the view that if regeneration of the town centre was the aim of the scheme then it should be phase one not phase four.

Jason explained that they had paid a king's ransom in rent and rates over the years and that while they had often reconsidered their future in the town centre they realised they had a responsibility to their loyal staff but this proposal was a “hammer blow” which they would not be able to recover from.

Jason had been trying to get a new lease from Tesco but they were being very difficult and continually asked himself “why have they bought the town centre if they are not going to develop it?”

Jason concluded his statement by explaining “The green space that you see on entering the town is a credit to town management. Once it has gone, it can't be brought back; we will be left with flooding, land erosion and light pollution.”

Mr. Clarkson cross-examined Jason on behalf of the applicants.

Mr Clarkson asked for clarification that Jason's original dispute over his lease had been with Development Securities, not Tesco. Jason agreed with this and explained that he had put an offer to Tesco but had not received a response.

Mr. Rodney Smith, the proprietor of Reds Café in the town centre addressed the inquiry.

Rodney explained to the inquiry that he has invested over £125,000 in his café business as he thought with a redeveloped town centre the town had a real future, he employs four full time staff and five part time staff and also trades as a market caterer; he has thirteen years left on his lease. His business had been operating for three years but was now feeling disillusioned after the changes to the plan for the town centre; his position was clear, “the North and South of Cherryfield Drive sites are not the town centre, the town centre currently exists.”

Rodney's ancestors are the Webster's, this Civic Suite was built on their farm and Webster Drive is named in their memory, he did not appreciate it being turned into a retail car park.

His opinion was that the people of Kirkby have been hoodwinked into this; he thought the scale was wholly unsuitable and felt the wording of the consultation document had been misleading; the whole application has been stage-managed and the media had not been impartial on this matter. The developers had failed to listen to the community and he described how some people felt manipulated and betrayed. He said he felt the traders would support the proposals if there were genuine consultation but that the exclusivity deal signed by the axis of power has prevented real consultation.

If only the energy put into this had been directed into something positive.

Mr. Jackson closed the inquiry for the day.

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