Coyte Farm: Time for some unconventional thinking

“It is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” (J.M. Keynes)

Until now, I’ve only been half following the debate over proposals for a 100 acre retail park on Coyte Farm on the edge of St Austell, silently bemoaning the advance of the out-of-town battalions at the expense of our town centres. But a letter to the Cornish Guardian from Cornwall Councillor Bert Biscoe stopped me in my tracks. This part in particular:

“Coyte Farm won’t be a town centre…It won’t have a church or a market hall, or a White Hart, or a cinema, or narrow streets to clamber through…or people living there, or a Post Office, or places which evoke memories and poems…”

I must be getting old. A few years ago I would have dismissed this kind of talk as hopeless nostalgia for a way of life that, however attractive, is doomed to disappear. But my reaction on reading Bert’s letter was, ‘Dammit, he’s right’. Why should we just accept this and, more to the point, why should our elected representatives on local and county councils just accept it? Why do councils appear to be so eager to accept that the out of town option is the only answer to the problems of places like St Austell? I think I see two reasons.

Reason One: Everybody else is doing it.

It’s always safer to stay in the crowd. Out of town shopping centres are being approved all over Britain and as a politician, it would take a willingness to stick your head above the parapet to say, ‘Stop! Just because that’s what they’re doing in Kent, Yorkshire or Birmingham doesn’t mean it’s automatically right for Cornwall.’ As the quote at the top of this post says, ‘It is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally’. If a development like Coyte Farm goes horribly wrong and the centre of St Austell turns into a crime-ridden ghost town, the politicians can at least say ‘well it’s not my fault, it was only what everyone else was doing.’ Is that what we elect councilors to do? I seriously hope not.

Reason Two: Because it’s the easier option

The big developers and national retailers have been doing the out of town thing for years. They’re experts in navigating the planning system and know how to feed catch phrases and buzzwords to the local politicians for them to parrot and sound authoritative. What politician could resist the vacuous modern business rhetoric which includes such gems as ‘category killers’, ‘inward investment’ and ‘a differentiated retail offering, generating a high quality customer experience.’ And then there are the attention-grabbing numbers. The version here is : ‘This development will bring £100 million pounds of investment into Cornwall and create 1,300 jobs in St Austell.”  Wow! How great would it be for any politician to be able to splash those sexy headline numbers on their campaign flyers and claim the credit? Better not to look too closely at whether those numbers are actually real…

All in all, off-the-peg developments like that proposed at Coyte Farm are much easier short term options than the messy business and hard work of the other alternative, which is to think how a town centre based development could be made to work.

But thinking seriously about that alternative would require planners to get away from the simplistic arguments they have been making. The debate has degenerated to the point where the only options are said to be decaying town centres consisting of boarded up units next to pound shops on the one hand, or the abandonment of town centres in favour of out of town concrete deserts on the other.

But how much effort really has gone into looking at the potential to attract the big name retailers like M&S and Sainsbury’s into St Austell town centre? How much under-utilised retail space and brown field land is there in the centre of St Austell? Are we really sure that there isn’t the potential to accommodate big national retailers in the centre of the town? If the 25-50,000 square feet units (which is what the developers behind the Coyte Farm plan say that the big retailers need) were available in the town centre, could Sainsbury’s etc. be persuaded to consider that option?

I’m not one of those who believes that the likes of Sainsbury’s and M&S should be kept out at all costs. Quite the opposite in fact. One of their stores in a town centre can be a powerful positive force. Look at the example of Marks & Spencer in Truro. Located on Lemon Quay in the heart of the city, I suspect that nearby retailers would acknowledge that they have benefitted by having a large national brand name next door. Even Sainsbury’s in Truro is close enough to the city that it most likely acts as a draw which benefits other retailers. The question is not whether the likes of Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer are evil; it’s about where they are located and understanding that they can be used as a magnet to pull consumers into town centres or pull them out.

So until we can be convinced that all options for regenerating the town centre and persuading the big national brands to seriously consider locating their new stores there, plans for Coyte Farm should be put on hold.  Yes, it will be hard work, certainly more work than taking the easy option and concreting over 100 acres of fields on the outskirts of town. But don’t we elect politicians to make the hard decisions rather than the easy ones?

I was struck by something that a director of property investment company, Ellandi said, about their plans for St Austell town centre:

“We have put together a vision for St Austell. This is not an instant gratification thing, it’s about sustainability,”

As the owners of the White River shopping centre in St Austell, Ellandi arguably have most to lose if Coyte Farm goes ahead, so with the best will in the world, they are not impartial. But the comment, ‘This is not an instant gratification thing” really hits home. Unfortunately, for those empowered to make planning related decisions, instant gratification seems to be more attractive than the hard slog to get to another destination, even if that destination is ultimately more desirable. The planning process should involve taking a big picture, long term view. It should ask what our town centres will turn into if they are sucked dry.  It should see the irreversible destruction of another 100 acres of countryside as a last resort, not an easy option justified by the fact that it’s happening everywhere else in Britain. Those employed or elected to represent us owe us that much.

They also owe it to us to keep the developers honest. When I read that a spokesman for Mercian, the company behind the Coyte Farm plan, said “it was not in the firm’s interests to turn St Austell into a ghost town” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It clearly is in their interest to turn St Austell into a ghost town. Their plans depend on attracting the big retailers to their giant new development by taking shoppers from the town centre. I’m sure that Mercian and the other big developers are not like James Bond movie villains, sitting at their desks and stroking white cats while plotting the destruction of town centres across Britain. But they could at least have the decency to acknowledge that this is the side effect of what they are doing. Until then, their credibility will be about on a par with that of a Westminster spin-doctor.

This is also a challenge and an opportunity for the local politicians who say they represent the voice of the people of Cornwall. Making a nuisance of themselves by demanding an honest, open debate on issues like Coyte Farm and insisting that all options have been properly explored would be a concrete example of what a non-mainstream party can offer the Cornish electorate. Do that and they’d have my vote every time.

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4 Comments

  1. The best way to comment is to offer this, my blog post on the subject http://jessicamilln.com/2013/01/18/love-st-austell-love-coyte-farm/.
    In a general way everything you say makes sense, but St. Austell has a specific problem. It currently has a negative draw. I’ve been exploring the debate deeper just because I’ve lived in St. Austell all my life and came down in the other camp. Out of town development is not something I’d normally condone, expect I think on this one occasion, Coyte Farm might well be the best hope St. Austell has.

    Reply
    • CornwallNow

       /  February 3, 2013

      Hi Jessica,
      I had already read your blog post and find it hard to disagree with too much of what you say. St Austell has been on a downward spiral for a long time and it would be ludicrous to claim that Coyte Farm is a threat to a vibrant town centre full of thriving independent traders. Any councillors who are pedaling this line need to take a look in the mirror and ask why they have not had the imagination and courage to tackle the town’s decline before now. If they see Coyte Farm as an apocalyptic view of the future, they need to acknowledge their part in bringing it about.

      I don’t have a negative knee-jerk response to out of town developments. If the town centre really is beyond redemption then maybe, regrettably, a Coyte Farm type development is the best and only choice. My question is this. Has everything that could be tried for St Austell, been tried? Has the potential of using brownfield sites / under-utilised retail space really been exhausted? Has the possibility of luring an M&S or a Sainsbury’s into the centre of St Austell really been fully investigated? I don’t know the answer to that, but suspect the answer is ‘no’. The councillors owe it to the people of St Austell to do this. Once the trigger is pulled on a 100 acre out of town development, there will be no going back.

      Reply
  2. D Treth

     /  September 8, 2013

    I visited Llanelli last year, and the town centre was full of empty shops. No coincidence that it has recently had a large out of town retail park development.

    Reply
    • CornwallNow

       /  September 8, 2013

      No coincidence at all, I suspect. The out of town developers will insist that it’s not their intention to damage the town centre retailers, but in an overall retail market that is growing very slowly, the reality is that only way they can prosper is by taking business from others. I would respect them more if they at least had the honesty to admit this, but I guess that would be bad PR.

      Reply

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