Mystery surrounds the future of a proposed retail park in south Leeds.
Leeds City Council’s south and west plans panel met to discuss blueprints for a new retail park in Middleton.
The proposed development, on the former Benyon House site, would include a Lidl, Costa Coffee, Jack Fulton and B&M, and the applicants claim the site would create more than 100 jobs.
But a report from council officers advised against the plans, claiming the town centre relies heavily on the existing B&M store, and that difficulties in finding a replacement tenant for the site could put the area at risk of deprivation.
This is despite the chief executive of B&M telling the council that the company would vacate Middleton altogether if it were unable to relocate from its “sub-standard” town centre store into the new retail park unit.
Panel members seemed unable to comprehend why officers would advise against the proposals on the grounds of being unable to find a replacement tenant for the site, when the retailer claimed it would be leaving its current location regardless.
Coun Paul Wray (Lab) asked: “If this had been any other retailer, would there have been a different discussion?
“We are not here to control the market. What has materially changed for it not to have been an issue then to being an issue now?”
A council officer responded: “The name of the operator makes no difference. What has changed is the ongoing deterioration of our high streets and the number of closures we have been seeing from out national retailers.
“Poundworld closing down represents a change in the retail market that is further deteriorating.
“We were sure that the unit would be reoccupied, but the likelihood of that has deteriorated.”
In a letter sent to council leader Judith Blake last month, B&M chief executive Simon Arora claimed the company would leave its existing site in Middleton, no matter what the outcome.
Coun Barry Anderson (Con) told the meeting: “It’s still going to fail because they are moving out. What difference does that make? How come it still causes a problem when it is going to go anyway?
“I know it might sound like a threat, but if they leave it will still fail.”
The officer responded: “This isn’t about whether B&M leaves, it is about the unit being reoccupied.”
Chairing the meeting, Coun Caroline Gruen (Lab) asked: “But it is going to be empty anyway. How does this change anything?”
The officer said: “The letter doesn’t change anything. With a retail centre being built next to it, this lessens the chance of it being reoccupied.”
Coun Anderson said: “I do find difficulty in understanding from a business perspective.
“We have (companies) coming that will probably attract people to come along. The additional footfall that will come into the area.”
The report added that 16 high street operators including Boots and Wilkinsons were contacted, all of whom said they would not be interested in taking on the unit currently occupied by B&M.
Supermarket giant Asda, which has a superstore in Middleton, also urged the authority to reject the application, as it believes there is insufficient interest to ensure B&M’s current site would be re-occupied.
But some members of the panel believed too much emphasis had been placed on B&M when considering the application.
Coun Sharon Hamilton (Lab) said: “I can only hear about the town centre – I saw it this morning, and it needs updating and something to attract people to attend.
“Wanting to refuse this new site that would probably attract people to go there and shop. Going on and on about B&M is irrelevant to me.
“I’m sure they are not just depending on B&M, and that’s all I’m hearing about.
“I don’t think it should just be based on B&M – whether it stays or moves, it is not going to make any difference to the town centre until it is regenerated.”
Coun Colin Campbell said: “We pay the officers to give us advice. They give us advice based on council and national policy.
“We may choose to ignore it, but you can’t, in effect, ridicule officers for doing what we pay them to do.
“The town centre is run down. It looks tired and can do with some investment.
“But this is a pretty rubbish design, it’s embarrassing. These are sheds.
“If you want sheds in Middleton, you can have sheds. But it’s not what I want.”
Members of the panel agreed to defer the decision for a later date.