Over 100 people turned out to have their say about the Future of Bridgwater’s Northgate site in the wake of the Tesco pull out. The meeting, which was held in the Trinity Hall in Westover, had been called by Bridgwater Town Council who believe there is a danger of landowners Sedgemoor and Somerset going off and doing their own thing without involving the people of the town, and was chaired by Cllr Steve Austen ,Mayor of Bridgwater.
Westover ward Councillor Brian Smedley started the evening with a powerpoint presentation of the 10 year history of Tesco’s involvement in the site which started and finished with everybody wondering what to do with these 2 patches of adjoining land –the Splash site, Brewery Field and the car parks (owned by Sedgemoor) and the Enterprise centre/old Workhouse/Blake Hospital site (owned by Somerset).
James Stubbs-Somerset County Council’s property manager-who had been heavily involved with the Tesco negotiations stated that “There is no plan B. Somerset has changing needs for land, we’ll work with Sedgemoor on ideas for the future but we’re not rushing off to sell it.”
Nick Tait-Sedgemoor District Council’s senior planning officer, said “We are still operating on the Bridgwater Vision which is a 50 year vision and identifies ‘mixed use schemes’ for the site. This area is now officially designated as Town Centre, so retail and specifically new retail should be a focus. The concern remains that the majority of shoppers go elsewhere to find what they need because there is clearly a lack of ‘comparison goods’. However, we will review this because retail is changing especially with the internet. We are also keen to promote leisure use, cafes,bars, cinemas. The Brewery Field I still believe is under utilised. There is also the option for residential, maybe in first and second stories above shops and offices. .”
The Mayor, describing Mr Tait’s comments as ‘disturbing’ in relation to possible ‘hi-rise thinking’ , then asked the town clerk to read a letter from the MP Ian Liddell-Grainger-who couldn’t be present as it was (apparently) a ‘busy time in the house’ (He didn’t say ‘whose’ house..). The MP said that Northgate was “a prime site and we shouldn’t rush into anything”. Clearly following his example…
A ‘Shopping Village’
A letter from Carnival Committee spokesman Chris Hocking warned of being over ambitious with ideas such as ‘Ice rinks’ or ‘Bowling’ as larger towns had failed to be able to sustain these once developed. He stressed the direction towards shopping village with factory outlets such as Clarks Village in Street and urged Somerset “...to take a more proactive role in promoting Bridgwater as a Tourist destination. There could be craft workshops, historical features , costumes – all things which Bridgwater people were good at.”
Alec Western was the first public speaker. He said “Bridgwater lacks leisure and supporting infrastructure to cope with all the new houses that were being built and addressing this was a priority“. He appealed to the councils NOT to rush to sell off the land as there is now “..no urgent financial need to do this. Northgate was too valuable an asset to squander so I urge a 4 year moratorium on selling the site. However, I feel that both SDC and SCC are corrupt self serving dictatorial entities with no desire to listen to the people of Bridgwater.”
James Stubbs (SCC) confirmed they would “..do nothing without consulting” and Nick Tait said he “..wasn’t so sure SDC would move so fast as it had taken 10 years for Tesco NOT to come to the site.”
SCC’s ‘current land needs’
Sara Evans pressed SCC on what exactly were their current land needs with James Stubbs admitting that “.. for instance, there was the need for an extra Primary School in Bridgwater for which we had to identify a site.”
Bob Cudlipp asked “Is there was actually a need for a joint marketing exercise between the 2 councils. For instance I wouldn’t want to see development on the Brewery field but would be happy to see it on the former Splash site itself” . He was also concerned at the imminence of the programmed County demolition of the Workhouse buildings on their site.
James Stubbs said SCC & SDC had agreed to work jointly. He accepted that demolition was planned and imminent but had been on the cards for some time and a key part of the process was removing the asbestos.
Nick Tait said it was “...always advantageous to see a site in it’s totality but that what would go there was still a blank canvass to work on.”
Steve Austen asked if that was “..a blank canvass for all or just for SDC and SCC ?”
Town needs Leisure facilities
Cllr Mick Lerry (Victoria) said “The Tesco project didn’t really fit into the ‘Bridgwater Vision’ anyway and the town needed leisure and recreation space. I believe that some of the money gained in compensation should be used to enhance the Brewery field. I also challenge SDC claims of ‘leakage’ – in terms of groceries this certainly wasn’t true and that the majority of people did the majority of their shopping locally.”
Former Tory Councillor David Preece started by telling the meeting that they wouldn’t like what he said but “..the blame was on successive governments for cutting back funding nationally meaning there wasn’t the funds locally and so councils had to generate capital receipts and find developers who were prepared to put money in”. He then went on to criticise Bridgwater Forward and the Labour Town Council for opposing Tesco’s and the Mercury for it’s negative coverage of the Tory Sedgemoor and Somerset councils.
Roger Smith from Angel Place Shopping Centre stressed that “…the key to the workability of any future Northgate development had to be linkage to the Town Centre and therefore the 2 sites needed to be promoted jointly as there could be no linkage from the SCC site if it was separated from the SDC site.” He further emphasised the need for consultation and offered Angel Place for use in this respect.
Sue from Mount Street queried “..whether anything at all actually had to be done to Brewery field and maybe it should just be left as it is-freeland for people to do what they want to do there?”
‘Put the love back into Bridgwater’
Nick Gibson said there was “...clearly a lot of love for Bridgwater from the people here tonight and this wasn’t reciprocated by SDC or SCC. If you don’t want to love it, we do!” He used the example of the impending demolition of the Workhouse saying “You’re going to destroy the buildings before they can be used. These are original Bridgwater bricks and you’re planning to grind them into rubble. At least consider recycling them. Talk to us not SDC, put the love back into Bridgwater”
James Stubbs said that whilst they were going to demolish the buildings they nevertheless wouldn’t rush into anything regarding the site.
Don’t take away our heritage
Pat Morgan asked if they even knew what the building they were going to destroy was.”It was the old workhouse infirmary. I worked there and I’m proud of that, and if you destroy it that’s another piece of Bridgwater you’ve taken away”
Ken Jones said “To have a meaningful consultation it has to be a 2-way thing. Why can’t you be honest with us?”
Theo Butt-Phillip said “Things are being done TO Bridgwater not FOR Bridgwater and we need to find a way to engage with the people not just the councils.”
James Stubbs said “The reason for the demolition is to open up the site for other opportunities. We’ve been planning it for a long time!”
Steve Austen asked “Is it because you get a better bang for your bucks if it’s empty? It’s got a lot of history and it’s a very solid structure”
Sally Jones said “There’s 1,000 houses being built and we’ve got to have facilities to go with them otherwise what will our children have? Nothing! So it’s true what Kerry Rickards said it’s the developers that are kings of this town.”
Nick Tait said that was “..the situation in a free market economy. Things are built by developers.”
Trevor Monaghan asked “If there was no rush, why the flattened site? Shouldn’t they be taking their time? How much is this demolition costing the tax payer? This is part of our history and what if we don’t want it demolished?”
SCC agree to suspend demolition
James Stubbs replied “Ok, I understand the strength of feeling here and I will undertake to halt the demolition and review it.”
Chris Hooper said that whatever happened on the site should compliment the nearby docks “We were lucky to have the docks and we should aim to re-open the lock gates”.
Pete Phillips said he “… wasn’t convinced that SCC hadn’t purposely tried to de-list the Blake Hospital building by putting in double glazing.”
Bill Taylor asked “... if there was a covenant on the Brewery Field that meant it was left to the people of Bridgwater permanently?”
Nick Tait said they had looked at that during the Town Green campaign and he believed there wasn’t.
More power to the Town Council
Glen Burrows said “We elect people to make decisions so why haven’t Sedgemoor and Somerset sent us elected Councillors here tonight to answer our questions? Only the Bridgwater Town Council has listened to us, called meetings when we needed them , supported us and opposed Tescos . Sedgemoor didn’t listen, they derided us and when we took action to try to save the Splash they slapped court costs of £56,000 on us. How absolutely spiteful, vindictive and nasty. Sedgemoor has to change it’s attitude to people in this town but I don’t think they can. If it’s the Town Council that listens, then we need more power to the Town Council to put pressure on the District Council-most of who don’t live here anyway. We need to set up a Forum so we don’t have to go through this again. We need to protect our green spaces, protect our heritage and fight for leisure facilities. Sedgemoor uses words like ‘vision’ and ‘renaissance’ –I think they should go back to their dictionaries!”
Richard Lee said “Bridgwater needs shops. We need a hook to draw people in. A big shopping centre like Clarkes village. If we put a dam in the right place on the river we can open up Sedgemoor’s waterways. There’s more waterways potential here than there is on the Norfolk Broads!”
Cllr Adrian Moore (Hamp) said “We’re losing our green spaces and we don’t want to lose the Brewery Field. If either SDC or SCC get a seperate offer they’ll stab each other in the back to take it. All these District Councillors just come into the town to make decisions for us and then they leave and the rest of us can go fry.”
Don’t sell off the family silver
Derek Gibson accused Sedgemoor of ‘selling the family silver’. “The Civic Society has witnessed this through 40 years of it’s existence. They sell it for what they can get rather than for what the people of Bridgwater want. We need more common sense in town planning. These policies are just a lot of waffle. We ask for a heartfelt consultation with the people rather than to be taken to the cleaners by developers. We want vision from Councillors. We can’t expect Councillors from Axbridge or Cheddar to have any – they have no interest in Bridgwater but only in their villages. It’s up to Bridgwater people to get together and form our own vision.”
Mike Slade said “SCC don’t have any respect for Bridgwater people. They don’t really market Bridgwater. Our buildings could be re-used instead of knocking them down- for instance as start-up industrial units.”
Rob Snelling asked “.. why the public right of way through the area had been closed?”
Nick Tait said “… if there was a right of way it couldn’t be closed.”
The Mayor then brought the meeting to a close saying “I am yet again overwhelmed by the passion for our town showed by speaker after speaker tonight. Thank you all for coming and I will ensure that a record of this meeting is made available for the incoming Town Council after May 7th”