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Saturday, 19 January 2013
Coyte farm is a massive out of town retail park destined (if planning officers and developers get their way) to be built on the green fields surrounding St Austell.
Last night I was looking through my Twitter feed and came accross the following tweet from Cllr Steve Double.
I was quite intrigued. Once you get past wondering how Mr Double actually knows as a fact 'what the majority of St Austell RESIDENTS think' (perhaps he has conducted private polling) I clicked on the link and readthe blog - it is always good to get different view points. Given Steve Double's usual viewpoint, I was expecting to see a pro-Coyte Farm piece and, in this at least, I wasn't disappointed.
The blog piece, by Jessica Milln, is well written. Mrs Milln has considered the evidence and reached the conclusion that Coyte Farm is a development that is desparately needed by St Austell if the town is "going to realistically market itself and be taken seriously as ‘St. Awesome.’"
As readers of this blog will know, I am not Cornish and I have never lived in St Austell. Unlike Mrs Milln who has lived there practically all of her life, I have little knowledge and no experience of St Austell's unique history. From reading her blog it is clear that Mrs Milln is passionately proud of the St Austell community and the town as a place to live - even if she is disappointed with what the town centre has to offer.
As I read through the piece I was reminded at almost every line of the book 'Cornwall at the Crossroads' produced by CoSERG. The decline of St Austell (and its community) over the last forty years or so, as related by Mrs Milln seemed to be the story of Cornwall in microcosm. However, the conclusions drawn by CoSERG and Mrs Milln were like chalk and cheese.
Mrs Milln has five reasons why she believs that Coyte Farm would be good for St Austell.
First she thinks that St Austell has always been too quick to say no. As an example she cites the decison by M&S not to set up in St Austell. It was rumoured, she says, that the traders were against this at the time because they thought it would harm their trade.
I'm afraid that I don't believe that M&S would ever decline to operate a store somewhere because other traders didn't want them. I also don't believe that M&S, or any other big corporation, would refuse to set up shop at any opporunity unless they were convinced that they would not be able to turn a profit. Ultimately, I think that M&S did not come to St Austell because they didn't believe they would make a profit - and not because St Austell said no.
Mrs Milln also considers the White River development which she says ended up nothing like the people of St Austell wanted. Surely this is evidence St Austell wants to say yes - but that the corporations funding developments say no to St Austell?
Mrs Milln then goes on to echo the battle cry of developers everywhere. Development brings jobs and provides a panacea for the ills of communities wherever it occurs. I'm sorry but this is just wishful thinking - as the evidence of Cornwall's hyperdevelopment of the last forty years shows. This kind of development will do little else for employment than provide a small number of part time, low wage jobs. Reading the comments following the blog, Mrs Milln claims that a few jobs as checkout operators or shelf stackers generates consequential employment and stimulation in the economy. This is because people with a steady income tend to rent or buy houses which they then do up. The problem with this utopia is that a part time minimum wage doesn't actually provide enough income to be able to obtain a mortgage. Coyte Farm jobs will be subsistence jobs and no more. Very few people will be able to afford to buy a house on the strength of their employment at Coyte Farm.
Worse still, Mrs Milln believes that, if Coyte Farm goes ahead, property prices will rise because St Austell will be a desirable place to live. Now I can't say that I agree with this assertion, but, even if it is true, it doesn't bode well for the young people of St Austell who will have trusted in the minimum wage employment that is being held up as a shining opportunity for the future. They can't afford to live in their home community now - and will be less likely to be able to if Mrs Milln is correct.
But shouldn't we view Coyte farm as an opportunity? St Austell should negotiate with the developers. A good idea, unfortunately a problem in practice. St Austell, public or Town Council, have no power to negotiate. Cornwall Council might perhaps negotiate some minor concessions from developers who ultimately have to turn a profit for their share holders, but such concessions would be very small. Not only are there many councillors who are simply led by the nose by unelected council officers but the officers themselves seem to be there to put into action the Westminster government's policy of development any cost and would not be likely to drive a hrad bargain for the people of St Austell.
Of course the answer might be that St Austell town centre is simply afraid of competition. St Austell is apparently full of businesses which are inward looking, do not provide people with what they want and lack any customer service culture. This may be true. Mrs Milln is better placed than me to make this claim though, as I own a retail business myself, I know how difficult it is just to survive in the current climate even if you focus on customers at every turn and I salute all small shop keepers evreywhere in the today's economic environment.
What is clear is that fair competition does indeed improve customer focus, however, unfair competition does not. Perhaps, as part of the negotiations that it is suggested should take place, the developers could hand over the car park at Coyte Farm to Cornwall Council to charge at the same rate as the town centre car parks? Or, maybe, the tenant businesses at Coyte Farm could pay a service charge to enable Cornwall Council to reduce or eliminate car park charges in St Austell? I can't see that happening somehow.
Finally, Mrs Milln asks what do we risk? Is it because town centres have acted like dinosaurs in their outlook that they are failing? What if Coyte farm is not built now - will the town centre be any better in five years or just the same but with St Austell lacking an amazeballs new reatil therapy park?
Well, to reverse the question, if Coyte Farm is built will St Austell be any better in five years? Mrs Milln uses HMV as an example of how a mainly town centre based business has failed. What about Comet? Just about every out of town development has had a Comet hasn't it. Far from being the future I would say that the out of town shopping centre (at least as we know it now and as Coyte farm is planned) is doomed to future failure by internet shopping as Comet has already shown.
Mrs Milln, herself, eloquently sums up the risk:
"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."
So there is the risk. Is this really a risk worth taking?