Controversial plans for a Next Home and Garden store were rejected despite Sheffield Council recognising arguments against the scheme were ‘weak’, a public inquiry has heard.
Emails obtained by British Land – which is challenging the council’s rejection of the scheme – also showed two experts told the authority the plan should be granted.
British Land wants to build a 5,678 square metre Next Home and Garden store on derelict land off Vulcan Road, near Meadowhall, along with a Sytner car dealership and Costa Coffee bar.
The scheme, which would create up to 150 jobs at the Next store alone, was refused by Sheffield Council last year but British Land has appealed and the case is being heard by a Planning Inspector at Sheffield Town Hall this week.
The council argues the store would breach its planning policy against further expansion of Meadowhall and that there is a suitable alternative site on the edge of the city centre.
Opening the case for British Land, barrister Christopher Katowski QC said: “Internal emails released by the council show that both its case officer and retail policy officer advised that the proposals should be permitted.
“The council’s independent retail consultants GVA, despite being pressed by head of planning David Caulfield to say otherwise, did not consider it appropriate to refuse the application.
“Even Mr Caulfield repeatedly characterised the case for refusal as ‘weak’ but he wrote the application up for refusal nonetheless.”
Mr Katowski criticised Mr Caulfield saying he should have looked for ‘solutions rather than problems’ when considering the application but ‘acted entirely in the opposite manner’.
The planning inquiry heard the ‘key’ objection to the store – that it would harm investor confidence in city centre development – had been withdrawn by Scottish Widows, which owns The Moor.
Sheffield Council’s suggested alternative on the edge of the city centre, the Mothercare and Staples site off St Mary’s Gate, was unsuitable for the design of the planned scheme, the barrister added.
Mr Katowski said that where council proposed alternative sites, ‘the question is whether the site would be suitable for the proposed development, not whether the proposed development could be altered or reduced so it can be made to fit’.
He added that the St Mary’s Gate site was not immediately available because Staples is still in one of the units – and that the site is also technically not within the city centre either.
British Land also said Sheffield Council’s policy against Meadowhall’s expansion is based on regional planning policies which are ‘now out of date’.
“The anti-Meadowhall policies were founded on the regional strategy which has now been revoked.
“The council has recognised that its Meadowhall policies need substantial revision and the pre-submission draft city policies and sites plan drops any implied embargo on retail development at Meadowhall,” Mr Katowski said.
He said ‘no sensible person’ would consider the proposed store to form part of Meadowhall.
Claims that Sheffield Council’s planning policy restricting retail development around Meadowhall is out of date were refuted by the council’s legal team.
Andrew Fraser-Urquhart, the council’s barrister, said: “These policies are framed in the context of significant evidence showing that the city centre is in a fragile state.
“It requires protection from a potential series of out of centre developments which, whilst individually not having a significant adverse impact on the viability and vibrancy of the city centre, nevertheless cumulatively would have that effect.”
Mr Fraser-Urquhart said the policy against Meadowhall expansion is ‘part of a recently-adopted core strategy and fully compliant with the national planning policy framework’.
Sheffield Council said it had correspondence with the owner of the Mothercare and Staples site to say the land could be ‘readily developed’ and that Next’s objections to the St Mary’s Gate location were ‘groundless’.
The council’s expert witness Andrew Jackson, of GL Hearn surveyors, said the Next Home store was a ‘further out of centre retail development which will increase the attraction and growing dominance of Meadowhall whilst adding to the decline of the city centre’.
Mr Jackson said a mezzanine floor within the existing building at St Mary’s Gate could provide a store of 5,960 sq metres - larger than the planned store at Vulcan Road.
Sheffield Council’s head of planning David Caulfield said: “Major non-food retail development should not occur outside centres and Meadowhall should remain around its present size.”
Planning Inspector David Wildsmith, leading the public inquiry, said the case is likely to continue until Friday. The inquiry includes a visit to the site of the proposed store.
The result will be influential in whether Ikea is allowed permission for its planned development on Sheffield Road, near to the Next site. Ikea has now submitted a planning application which will be decided at a date to be fixed.