Flagship department store faces closure if it loses car park battle

The retailer claims that the council’s plans may well bring to an end nearly a hundred years of a store trading at the bottom of Mount Pleasant Road.

The council has applied for a compulsory purchase order [CPO] that will grant them the right to drive through the store’s customer car park, allowing them to service Calverley Square, their new £90million theatre and civic complex.

Hoopers, who bought the site from Weeks in 1990, a department store that had been trading in the location since the 1920s, say the council’s plans creates an ‘existential threat’ to the business, risking 170 jobs.

Managing Director, Debra Angus, is to tell the CPO inquiry at the Mercure Hotel tomorrow that if the Borough Council are granted rights to its car park, the department store would be ‘compelled to close the car park to customers.’

In her submission to the Planning Inspectorate’s Graham Dudley, Ms Angus stated: “If this occurred, it would have a catastrophic effect on the viability of continuing to trade at this location, and a knock-on impact on the group.”

They will present a report by Lee Stampton of Health and Safety South East, which states: “Frankly, I am at a loss as how we can conduct a risk assessment on the likely new vehicle movements arising from the CPO rights and come out with the risk as being acceptable.”

Hoopers, which also has stores in Harrogate, Torquay and Wilmslow, employs nearly 500 people, more than a third of which are based in Tunbridge Wells. The town’s store also accounts for nearly 40 per cent of the company’s sales.

Ms Angus says the car park, which consists of 34 parking bays, is ‘an important tool’ to engage and retain its customer base as ‘loyal customers are the life blood of our industry’.

She will explain to Mr Dudley that the store’s loyalty card programme includes free parking to regular customers, a benefit that is a ‘unique point of difference which helps the store compete with other retailers in Tunbridge Wells.’

Cardholder turnover represents nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of group sales and almost half of that comes from Tunbridge Wells’ customers, claim Hoopers.

In 2017, the Mount Pleasant Road store sold off an additional 20-space customer car park nearby on Grove Hill Road, to developers of a residential apartment block, known as the ‘Pink Building’. The sale happened more than twelve months after hearing of the council’s plans to use its store car park lower down the hill.

The Council’s QC, Craig Howell Williams, from Francis Taylor Building, might use this information to cast doubt on the importance the group places on its car park for customer retention.

TWBC claim the car park is needed to provide access to the Calverley Square development.

They argue that vehicles servicing the theatre will predominately be only active at night, when the store is closed, and access is only needed as an exit point for large trucks as they will arrive at the back of the theatre via Mount Pleasant Avenue.

However, they admit, up to 10 delivery vans a day would need access to the car park to deliver such things as food and drink to the theatre, and supply the offices and civic centre.

Initially, TWBC wanted to purchase half the spaces in the car park, a move that Hoopers vehemently opposed. Subsequently, an offer was made for just four spaces, again opposed by the department store.

The CPO currently under examination by the Planning Inspectorate does not include the compulsory purchase of any of Hoopers’ land or car park. It simply requests ‘unrestricted access rights’.

Without access, trucks and lorries would be unable to service the backstage area of the theatre, as there would not be space for them to turnaround and head back out onto Mount Pleasant Road.

If the CPO is confirmed work on the theatre is scheduled to begin in October 2019 and is predicted by the Council to end in January 2022

Simon Bell from Knights Solicitor based in the High Street, Tunbridge Wells, who is acting for iSmile Dental Practice, which is threatened with demolition from one of the CPOs explained: “As a result of the Inquiry, the CPO will either be confirmed (with or without modifications) or rejected by the Planning Inspector. 

“If the CPO is confirmed, then substantive construction work on the Council’s scheme to develop a new civic centre, public square and theatre at the western entrance of Calverley Grounds will follow.”

Failure to get the CPO confirmed could put an end to the council’s plans for Calverley Square, or at least send TWBC back to the drawing board for an alternative logistics plan for the theatre, ramping up the costs of the £90million development.

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