Town-centre development could start in autumn - but residents unconvinced

Angry and disappointed residents remain unconvinced about the future of Bedlington town centre, after its redevelopment stalled earlier this year.

Thursday, 21st March 2019, 10:23 am
Updated Thursday, 21st March 2019, 14:08 pm
The ground-breaking in November - from left, Coun Russ Wallace; Coun Richard Wearmouth, chairman of Advance Northumberland; Paul Walker, regional commercial director at Tolent Construction Ltd, and Couns Bill Crosby and Malcolm Robinson.

The latest time-scale for the regeneration project focused around the town’s former Tesco site, which is being led by the county council-owned company Advance Northumberland, is aiming for the 12-month construction of the new shops to start in the autumn.

But this would still mean the scheme would not be completed until the back end of 2020 at the earliest.

And, as Advance’s managing director Ken Dunbar told a lively Cramlington, Bedlington and Seaton Valley Local Area Council meeting last night (Wednesday, March 20), this all hinges on getting the anchor tenant – a major supermarket – to sign on the dotted line.

This key store was lined up, but chose to review its options around the time the enabling works to prepare the site got under way, meaning the project stalled when these preparations were completed in January.

Mr Dunbar said that nine other retailers – eight of which would be new to the town – are ‘very interested’ in taking on some of the other units, but that they needed the anchor store in place to guarantee the footfall.

He warned about the difficulties in the retail sector at the moment, but said: “That shouldn’t stop towns like Bedlington wanting to move forward with good, well-thought-through schemes, but there are challenges.

“With all that, I feel very optimistic about how things will move forward.”

He added: “We need to tell and sell a positive story of the town.”

The new timescale relies upon the exchange of contracts with the anchor tenant and the agreement of terms with the supporting retailers by the end of May, so that construction can start this autumn.

Asked for guarantees by Bedlington East councillor Bill Crosby, Mr Dunbar replied: “I can’t ever give you a guarantee on anything, but I guarantee we will work as hard as we can. We will know very soon if we are on target for that timescale.

“Giving guarantees is impossible when the market dictates what happens.”

Coun Richard Wearmouth, chairman of Advance Northumberland, added: “We are incredibly close with the anchor tenant. Ken’s right to say there’s no guarantees, but we are very close. We are making really good progress.”

But Coun Russ Wallace, who represents the Bedlington Central ward, said: “The turnout has shown how important this is for our town. I’m really disappointed that we haven’t got a firm start date from you tonight.

“I appreciate that you are optimistic, but we are not as optimistic as you. Even starting in the autumn, that’s nine months of a black hole.

“We found out when the contractor took his cabins off the site and that was an own-goal for you. I’m disappointed and I expect the people in this room are too.”

Bedlington West’s Coun Malcolm Robinson added: “We want to see Bedlington as a destination, not the crossroads it is now.”

Residents in attendance at Netherton Social Club were even more scathing, with some asking what the contingency plan is if an anchor tenant isn’t secured, while others questioned whether a retail scheme was ever going to be viable, suggesting a leisure development could be the right option for the town.

Mr Dunbar said that if a rethink became necessary then residents would be consulted, but clearly this would affect the timescales. He added that they would consider leisure as part of the mix, but the scheme which has planning permission – a food store, 11 retail units and flats – is what’s being taken forward currently.

Appearing to sum up the feelings of many of the residents, one man said: “I’m disappointed to come here tonight to hear nothing.”

Another woman stormed out, saying: “I’ll see you back here next year.”

There was also mention of the ‘Bedlington hole’ – a reference to the so-called Ashington hole, where the new council HQ was cancelled, leaving an undeveloped site where a cinema and retail development is now being mooted.

However, Coun Wearmouth said that they had pushed on with the enabling works in order to show support for the project, adding: “We went out on a limb because we wanted to deliver this scheme for this Christmas to give Bedlington a boost.”

After the meeting, one of the local area council’s members, Labour’s Coun Susan Dungworth, said: “Wednesday’s meeting turned out to be a damp squib for those in attendance, disappointed to learn that nothing has changed and that the authority has no plan B for the site.

“To simply pursue this strategy with seemingly no account taken of the struggle retailers are going through nationally is quite frankly ridiculous.

“The Grimsey review sets out clearly that the high street has to change and, despite his visit to Northumberland, it appears this administration are deaf to his suggestions.”

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service