Yes? No? Undecided? Campaign unleashed in Whittlesey to persuade Sainsbury’s to come clean on whether they will build a new store in the town

Sainsbury's locked in a 'will they or won't they' build at Whittlesey

Sainsbury's locked in a 'will they or won't they' build at Whittlesey - Credit: Archant

Sainsbury’s has dropped a bombshell on Whittlesey residents telling them on the one hand Fenland Council has “fully approved” their application but saying nothing can happen until the county council has “agreed” detailed design of a new access route.

The curious double speak was revealed to campaigners fighting for Sainsbury’s to push ahead with the store after they had lobbied company chairman David Tyler to try and win a commitment that the development will go ahead.

The supermarket chain finally won consent for the Eastrea Road store in October but many in the town have been left wondering if the store has got ‘cold feet’ and ditched the scheme.

The company has been lobbied by local councillors and supporters, releasing only a non committal statement that says it is not in the 2016/17 build programme.

David Mills, head of property communications, has replied to lobbyists from the town and says “I note your support for a new food store and petrol station and understand your desire to see the development move forward”.

He also agrees with the need for the store “particularly given the projected housing growth in the town and the additional leisure benefits it would bring through the country park”.

Mr Mills, whilst setting out brief details of the obstacles to winning permission, concedes Fenland District Council “has now fully approved our latest planning application which sought changes to a number of planning conditions around our goods online facility”.

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But he later added that “it is not possible to undertake any supermarket development until the detailed design of the new access route and resulting changes to Eastrea Road have been agreed with Cambridgeshire County Council.

“We are continuing to work on this issue.”

However I understand from a county council source that officers are bemused by the statement having worked with Sainsbury’s to finalise late access amendments that were approved by Fenland Council in October.

My source tells me the statement by Mr Mills of a “revised access arrangement” was the first they had heard of it.

And, given the complex negotiations that secured the final application, they are puzzled why the supermarket chain would want any further amendments. I understand there has been minimal contact with Sainsbury’s since the October meeting of Fenland Council approved the amendments.

In his letter to residents, Mr Mills says that the planning delays and legal challenges over the years had not helped.

“During this time the grocery market has changed significantly with the continued rise of the discounters and customers increasingly shopping little and often, with smaller basket sizes,” he says.

“As such we do not have a firm date for any new store and I am afraid Whittlesey is not one of the stores which will be delivered in 2016 / 17.”

He added: “I know this is not the answer you hoped for, but we will continue to keep you up to date as we progress.”

Vectos, a transport planning and infrastructure design consultancy, acted for Sainsbury’s and local developer Whitacre Management in providing traffic and transport advice for both the store and an adjoining business park that also won consent.

Vectos say on their website that they steered the Sainsbury’s scheme through a lengthy planning process that faced challenge from a rival developer for a site further along Eastrea Road.

“At an early stage, it was clear that local planning authority officers at Fenland District Council (FDC) were minded to recommend the neighbouring site for approval and our client’s site for refusal,” says Vector.

“A key objective was to demonstrate to FDC that our scheme was more sustainable and subsequently preferable to the neighbouring site”

Part of the scheme involves a country park, and a support group – the Friends of Whittlesey County Park- has been set up and chaired by Martin Whitwell.

He has urged all supporters to continue to lobby the chairman and chief executive of Sainsbury’s “to remind them that Whittlesey has not gone away and would still like to have a new Sainsbury’s store and country park.

“In doing this the message goes to the top instead of being filtered out by people lower down the management structure.”

Developer Bruce Smith of Whitacre said it was “not possible” for him to comment on the scheme at the moment.

“Be assured I am working night and day to deliver the scheme in its entirety for the people of Whittlesey,” he said.