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'They're taking the p***.' Lidl plan for new Downham store approved despite anger over 'pittance' town centre offer

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Plans for a new Lidl store on the edge of Downham were narrowly given the go-ahead today, despite fierce criticism of its offer of town centre support.

Officials from the budget retailer hope to open the site off Bexwell Road early next year after the scheme was approved by West Norfolk Council’s planning committee.

But it only got the nod by nine votes to seven, as one critic accused the chain of “taking the p***” in its approach to the plan’s potential impact on the town centre.

Lidl, Grantham. Grantham stock image 2022. (56387487)
Lidl, Grantham. Grantham stock image 2022. (56387487)

Committee members indicated they were minded to approve the application last month, provided a suitable package of mitigation measures to help the town centre could be drawn up.

Officials had previously recommended refusal, arguing the scheme was likely to harm the town centre, while rival retailer Morrisons had previously warned its store in the town could close.

Reports published ahead of Monday’s session at Lynn Town Hall showed Lidl had refused to increase its initial offer of £50,000 to be put towards mitigation initiatives, despite the view of town councillors that the amount was insufficient.

The papers also indicated the development would provide around £250,000 in community infrastructure levy payments, though they may be spent elsewhere in the borough.

But resident Barrie Wiles told the committee that more money had been offered to the Gaywood Traders’ Association when Tesco built their store there in the 1990s than what was on the table from Lidl now.

And the unease about Lidl’s offer was echoed by panel member Chris Crofts, who dismissed it as “peanuts”.

Committee chairman Vivienne Spikings said: “It should be more. It can be more.”

Sandra Squire said: “It’s not really a good enough contribution for Downham. It’s a mere pittance and, to be quite frank, it’s taking the p***.”

That prompted an intervention from Mrs Spikings, before Mrs Squire added: “It’s not good enough. They need to do better.”

And Jo Rust said the harm caused by the development was not outweighed by its potential benefits.

But Chris Morley said he was unconvinced by the argument that it would harm Downham, claiming a £1,000 contribution made as a “gesture” would be sufficient.

Ward councillor Josie Ratcliffe said she hoped the town council’s failure to identify a project on which the money could be spent would not delay the scheme.

And former council leader Brian Long said it was “quite right” that a financial contribution was made.

He also argued the scheme would give shoppers both in the town and surrounding villages more choice.

Kate Bleloch, for Lidl, earlier told the committee they would begin development “as soon as reasonably practicable” if permission was granted.

She said the company hopes to open the new store in early 2023, adding: “We’re committed to Downham.”

Concerns were also raised about the impact of the scheme on nearby residents and the reasoning for the site being brought forward.

Neighbour George Dickson said the development would have a “massive impact” on his life and the combination of the Lidl store and the nearby McDonald’s and Starbucks development meant traffic risks would also be much higher.

Lidl’s planning agent Richard Huteson said there was no other suitable site available in the town.

But independent councillor Tom Ryves questioned why the Bexwell Road site had been chosen when a number of other options in the town centre and on industrial sites were available.

He warned the town could become a “ghost town” because of the out of town shopping offer and pointed out there was no support for a store in the area in the borough’s current local plan.

He asked: “If this application does go through, what is the point of having a local plan?”

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