Proposals for a new Lidl in Berkhamsted got through by just one vote at a planning meeting attended by fewer than 20 members of the public last night.
Earlier this year, more than 700 people signed a petition in favour of the discount supermarket moving into the town – while more than 350 people signed one against it.
The anti-Lidl lobby were branded ‘toffee-nosed twits’ and ‘snobs’ as the debate took a bitter turn amid arguments about the working-classes being priced out of Berkhamsted.
After a story on this website was picked up by the Daily Mail, BBC and ITV, camera crews rushed to Berkhamsted to gather opinions on the issue.
None of them were at last night’s meeting.
Lidl’s planning agent Nick Hardy said there had been just seven letters of objection to the planning application for the discount supermarket and five in favour of it.
The proposal won the backing of Dacorum Borough Council’s development control committee during a meeting at Hemel Hempstead Civic Centre last night.
But the vote was tight – five councillors were in favour of the plan, and four against. Two abstained.
A prior motion to defer the decision until a later date was defeated by an even narrower margin.
Six councillors had voted in favour of it and five against. But after committee chairman Graham Sutton backed the rejectors with his casting vote, making it six all, the proposal was defeated.
Mr Sutton did not cast his vote when the successful motion – which suggested the committee support Lidl’s plans, subject to conditions – was put forward.
During the prior discussion, Berkhamsted West councillor Carol Green said the proposal should be rejected because it went against Dacorum Borough Council’s current planning policies.
She said the authority’s core strategy for development until 2031 allowed only for so much new retail space in Berkhamsted.
She said the limit was reached when a Marks & Spencer Simply Food store opened in the town centre recently.
She said: “What’s the point of all the time and money spent preparing these policies if they are just dismissed?”
She added that the proposal also went against the site’s assigned usage for class B employment – primarily for office and industrial staff.
But council planning officer Paul Newton said that the core strategy can be ‘changed and adapted quite quickly’ if there are grounds to suggest this ought to be done.
He said: “There is a need for that discount-type store in Berkhamsted.”
Councillor Ian Reay criticised a report by council officers that refers to a ‘qualitative need’ for a discount supermarket in Berkhamsted.
He said: “It seems to me that Lidl’s business model is driving everything here, rather than our own planning policies.”
But councillor Hazel Bassadone said the Lidl would be useful to many people in Berkhamsted – including those who move into the Farm Place council homes now being built.
Mr Hardy added that an independent assessment by property expert Brasier Freeth ruled that the prospects of the site being redeveloped for class B employment use were slim.
But councillor Fiona Macdonald questioned the need for another food store in Berkhamsted.
Referring to the town’s new M&S Simply Food store, she said: “No matter when you go in there – even on a Saturday morning, it’s empty.”
Several councillors suggested the new Lidl could divert trade away from the town centre.
Mrs Green pointed out that in the mid-1990s, plans for a Tesco in Stag Lane – much nearer to the town centre – were rejected for this exact reason.
But the borough council’s lead planning officer Andrew Parrish said that evidence suggested the Tesco would have pulled away 64% of the town centre’s trade.
The comparable figure for Lidl – which would be built in Gossoms End between Billet Lane and the A4251 – is just 6%, he added.
Councillor David Collins said that children going to three different primary schools would have to cross roads near to the proposed store. The extra lorries and cars in the area could put them at risk, he said.
Mrs Green said: “The position of the site is dangerous from a traffic and a pedestrian point of view.”
But Mr Hardy said that Lidl will set aside £56,000 for improvements to nearby roads in a total package of £135,000 set aside for community projects.
The figure includes £15,496 that will be paid towards primary education, £6,102 towards secondary education, £2,613 towards libraries and £12,810 towards outdoor pitches.
Mr Hardy said the discount supermarket would improve consumer choice, provide 30 new homes – 11 of them affordably priced, regenerate that part of the town and provide employment. It is thought that the new store could create around 40 new jobs.
The final decision on whether Lidl’s proposal gets the go-ahead will be made by Dacorum Borough Council’s group manager for development and planning.