Aldi under fire from school as store plan gains support
A local school has accused supermarket giant Aldi of being “underhanded” in its quest to build a store in the town.
At a meeting of Biddulph Town Council's Planning Committee last Tuesday, James Bateman Middle School, located next to the proposed Aldi site, raised a number of concerns.
They included fears that students would have to access the school's playing fields via the supermarket's car park, that investigative work carried out more than two years ago “caused damage” to the playing fields, and that communication between the two bodies had broken down.
Despite concerns, town councillors recommended Aldi's application for approval, arguing that the supermarket would be an asset to the town and should not be discouraged from setting up in Biddulph.
The Chronicle reported at the start of the year that Aldi had been confirmed as the developer of the site off Tunstall Road, ending a great deal of speculation. The land had been home to the Meadows School until it was gutted by fire in 2004 after which the school was relocated to Leek.
Setting out the James Bateman Middle School's position at last Tuesday's meeting, business and operations manager Cheryl Picken said: “Our headteacher's major concern is about the underhanded way in which Aldi has gone about the purchase of the land in the first place. As an adjoining landowner that requires access, there appears to be very little regard to how this will be done.
“We have safeguarding concerns regarding pupils that are expected to access the playing fields via Aldi car park.”
Contrary to the school's fears, a statement submitted by Aldi to the district council on Monday, 6th July, said there would be “continued right of way for the James Bateman Middle School to access its playing fields” via a “pocket park” it plans to build.
However, Ms Picken argued that access to the playing fields has already been partially denied to the school.
”On a couple of occasions since Aldi has purchased the land, we have been denied access to the playing fields because they have changed the locks and not given us the codes.
“Another point that we would like to make is that back in March 2018, Aldi approached us and asked if some investigative work could be done on the playing fields and, to this day, Aldi still hasn't put the playing fields right, to the point where we can't use them with children. There was heavy equipment on there at some points and it caused quite a bit of damage.”
She added: “We allowed Aldi access to the fields whenever it wanted and they were in constant communication with us up until February 2019. Since then, they have had no communication with the school at all. They have got email addresses and telephone numbers, but all communication has stopped.”
Independent Coun Dave Hawley, the chair of the town council's Planning Committee, tried to reassure the school there were provisions in Aldi's plans for access to the playing fields, saying: “In the plans, there is a pocket park and it has got a road through it. Aldi are effectively saying that this is where your access point would be into the playing fields. In the plans as they stand, they are allowing you to access the playing fields without going through their site.”
According to the school, a “land swap” was being considered by Aldi in early 2018, when talks began.
Initially, the school said that it had planned to move from its current site to the Meadows School site, and Aldi would instead have use of the playing fields.
Ms Picken said that this would have allowed the school to build “a full-sized sports pitch with car parking, spectator zones, changing facilities and floodlighting” but due to a number of complications, including the fact that it would have been “messy” to consider a transfer of land while the school was converting to an academy, this did not happen - hence Aldi's current plans to build on the Meadow School site.
Labour Coun Nigel Yates said the “land swap” was mentioned in previous meetings with Aldi officials although it was “inferred there was a lack of communication on both sides”.
Independent Coun Wayne Rogers said: “When the councillors had a consultation with Aldi a while ago, they basically said that it's this site or no site - so I don't think there was any hope of a land swap. Originally, we thought that Aldi had got the playing fields as well as that site, but no, they got the old school site.”
Labour Coun Jill Salt said: “I think the way that Aldi has dealt with the James Bateman Middle School has been despicable from start to finish. I support the idea of an Aldi in the town, but I really disagree with the access arrangements and the way that Aldi has not involved the school at all. I think it's really poor form. But I wouldn't recommend the application for refusal because I think that Aldi would be an asset to the town.”
Councillors were in agreement in voting to recommend Aldi's plans for approval.
Liberal Democrat Coun John Redfern said: “Presently, we have a situation in Biddulph where we are a 'one supermarket town' and I don't think that's healthy for competition. In the current economic climate, anything that brings a value to money for the people of Biddulph has to be applauded.”
Staffordshire Moorlands District Council will have the final say on the plans, but a date for the decision has yet to be set.
The Chronicle asked Aldi to respond to the school's concerns, but no response was received before deadline yesterday (Wednesday).
After Aldi's planning application was submitted to the district council, the company said the proposal had attracted an “overwhelming” level of local support following a public consultation in March, with 315 respondents (over 95%) supportive of it Aldi said residents welcomed more shopping choice, job creation, and specifically a new Aldi store in Biddulph, which would reduce travel times for existing customers who currently travelled to stores in Congleton and Kidsgrove.
George Brown, its regional property director, added: “We're delighted with the level of support for our proposal to bring a new food store to Biddulph. I would like to thank those residents and stakeholders who provided us with their feedback.
“If passed, our proposal would be fantastic for the community - regenerating a site that has been vacant for many years, making a significant investment in Biddulph, keeping spend local and creating around 40 local jobs.”
The 1,332sqm food store would have 114 car parking spaces, including eight accessible bays, seven parent and child spaces, and two electric car charging points.