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Aldi - What's in Store?

Aldi - In store for St Annes?At last, they have gone public. After looking for a suitable site in St Anne's for over three years, Aldi have found one in the Porritt-built Conservative Club and the incredibly out of character (and now redundant) concrete and glass 1960's Jobcentre behind it. We understand they have acquired both.

The present plan is to demolish and replace them with an Aldi store and 'affordable' (social housing) apartments above, with a small replacement Conservative Club at the rear on the first floor.

Like the foxhunting ban, this idea will have its supporters and detractors in strength at both extremes. But it also ticks the boxes of so many unseen agendas, both for and against, that we are likely to see strange bedfellows and unusual alliances as this tale unfolds.

The early shots - before the plans were made public - centred around the damage that might be done to St Anne's upmarket reputation by having an Aldi store (which was perceived to have a downmarket image, probably because of its no-frills, low cost, value-based retailing, and equally low-budget premises elsewhere). There was also adverse comment about losing another original Porritt building.

So, we will first consider what's in store for St Anne's, then go on to wade around in the murkier waters to explore need, image, and identity  for St Anne's.

Probably the first thing to say is that no-one with half an eye to architecture will mourn the passing of the Jobcentre. The second thing to say is that compared with their standard stores, Aldi have gone to extraordinary lengths to respect the style of the area into which they hope to move. But they do plan to demolish an original and key St Anne's building of character.

The development would have an underground car park for store users, accessed by pedestrians from an unfortunately named "terminal" shelter-type building on the present forecourt. The ground floor is the store with a Victorian style wrap-around canopy, and the external structure is in red and yellow/buff brick with stone window framing and corners. The outline echoes the domestic gothic in which St Anne's was conceived.

The first floor has apartments and a couple of small rooms for the Conservative club. The second and third floors are all apartments. The apartment plans counterbalance saw seemed  a bit on the cramped side to us, but then we are fortunate to have an older property to occupy.

Many of the apartments look out onto the back of Woolworths or other rear walls, so a 'roof garden' has thoughtfully been provided - though whether this will survive, or look anything like what one might hopefully imagine from the name, is another matter.

Vehicle access to the underground car park is via an entrance off St George's Road through a sort of archway. Pedestrian access to the store is on the corner of St George's Road and Clifton Drive North. The flats have a separate entrance.

Deliveries and servicing is from the back street between the Conservative Club and Woolworths. A ten-wheeler will drive up from Clifton Drive North, then reverse at a slight angle into a loading bay, before driving out toward (and possibly past) the Market and side of J R Taylors.

At the small but niggly end of the proposals are the increased massing visible from Clifton Drive, and parking issues such as where will residents and Conservative Club members park. The impact on the United Reform Church car park opposite, the car park of the nearby pub,  and parking areas for existing apartments, together with on-street parking aroundabout, and of course the other stores in the town will also enter the equation.

Which brings us neatly to the murky water.

Looking first at need, we see the arguments work on several levels. Do we need another foodstuffs store in the town for local people to shop at? The answer is probably not. Booths, Sainsbury and the remaining independents can meet most  people's needs for food shopping.

But there is a bigger issue about the sort of shopping provided in St Anne's, and in turn, who St Anne's customers ought to be.

The town's heyday was in the late 50s and early 60s. In fact it has been in a gentle decline ever since 1958 when the first Comets took off for the Spanish sun filled with people who used to go to the British seaside.

This means that the scale and scope of retailing (and indeed other facilities) in St Anne's developed to fit its peak tourism market, with a catchment area from Scotland to Birmingham. If the retail catchment area is to shrink to meet the needs just of the resident population, (as planning decisions in recent years suggest), then we can expect the retail area to shrink further.

Another approach would be to use specialist niche retail to attract more day and short break visitors to replace the lost spending of tourists, and to use niche marketing to differentiate St Anne's from other small towns.

So if you see the future of St Anne's as a visitor destination (and tourism is still its main industry), the one type of retail that won't hold any attraction is food retail, (Ask yourself: do you choose your day out according to what foodstores are present in the town?), and last thing visitors want is another foodstore. So here, the answer is an unequivocal and resounding No.

But the traditional image and identity of St Anne's has taken a severe battering from the actions and decisions of the present administration at Fylde Council. They have tried to modernise the town when most people wanted its heritage respected, valued and preserved. Nevertheless, the image is still one of gentility, and tranquillity with an upmarket ambience. Listen to local radio presenters adopt a mockingly plumy voice when referring to "St Aaaannes".

If we are to take advantage of this tourism and retail advantage, we must build on the foundation of difference and selectness. We are not big enough to compete with places like Preston, and we are not cheap enough to complete with places like Cleveleys or Blackpool.

So, retailing that fails to give an upmarket impression is likely to be disadvantageous, and any that promotes a downmarket or budget image will be harmful. The negatives are mounting for Aldi.

Finally, we come to the question of whether it important to retain the facade in its present original state. Here we come to the same conclusion as the LSA Civic Society. We have lost too many original buildings already, and counterbalance urges our planners to insist that the facade be retained in its original condition.

Not that they will of course, the present Conservative administration wants to modernise the town, so there won't be much sympathy there. And although we still refer to planners, and the Planning Committee, they are actually Development Control Officers and Committee. The idea of local people being able to plan their local environment went out of the window in the Thatcher period, when Heseltine reversed planning law to presume in favour of development unless there were adequate reasons to the contrary.

This is why we are so dissatisfied. Ultimately, even when they try to reflect our views, our local politicians are often overruled by Central Government who know nothing of our area, care even less, and actively seek development and modernisation, so they implement a system that prizes the commercial opportunities perceived by developers more highly than the desires and needs of local residents.

So if it can make a profit for its owners it doesn't much matter whether we need it or not, that's not part of the equation.

And it doesn't help when the Commissar misses the opportunity to use the Conservative Club and redundant Jobcentre as part of the town hall complex or, heaven forbid, the acquisition of the properties to sub-divide and let them to small businesses as other towns might do.

Further on that theme, having said they wouldn't hear what 'Defend Lytham' had to say at a public meeting in case it prejudiced their decision on the planning application,  counterbalance wonders whether Conservative Councillors will take part in the debate on the future of their Conservative Club.

So overall, counterbalance thinks Aldi deserves nine out of ten for effort, but this scheme still doesn't fit St Anne's' needs, and their application should be refused.

That said, we don't think it will be, and even if it is, an appeal will probably let it through, so (barring a revolution) we had probably better get used to the idea.

Dated:  2 June 2006


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