As has already been reported in the local press, Wychavon District Council are planning to buy the land currently occupied by Evesham fire station and redevelop it for a supermarket. Rumours about the identity of the supermarket chain in question have been floating around for a while, but it can now be confirmed that it is (as most people already seem to know!) Waitrose. I have to admit that I’m one of those who’s known that for a while; the reason I haven’t said anything publicly before is because the negotiations have so far been confidential. But Waitrose have now agreed to their involvement being publicised, and there is, accordingly, a report in today’s Evesham Journal which names them. Here’s what their press spokesman had to say about it:
We are very keen to bring Waitrose to Evesham and are in discussions with the council over the possibility of opening a food shop where the fire station is currently located next to the Old Brewery car park. However, these discussions are at early stage and should we be in a position to progress with the proposal, would still be subject to planning consent. Importantly, the plans would see the fire station relocated to a brand new facility.
I think this is very good news, for lots of different reasons. I’ve said in the past that Evesham needs more supermarkets (you only have to see the length of the checkout queues in Morrisons to realise that!), and, while I’m happy to see M&S moving into the Retail Park on Worcester Road, a new town centre location is considerably better. And, on a personal note, I like Waitrose – I have been known to drive to Alcester to use the Waitrose there! So having one in Evesham is certainly good news for me. I still think we need another, larger supermarket on the Southeast side of town to provide an alternative to Morrisons for residents on the “outside” of the river, but that’s separate to the need for a medium-sized, upmarket food retailer in the town centre.
In many ways, the fire station site is ideal for a medium-sized supermarket of the type typically used by Waitrose. It’s close to plenty of parking in both Merstow Green and the Old Brewery site, and only a short walk from the town centre itself. People will be able to park in either of those, walk to the town centre and then go to Waitrose afterwards (or, indeed, the other way around if they want to!), so it will almost certainly bring more people into the town centre as a whole.
So what happens to the fire station? Well, the proposal is to move that to the former council depot site next to the leisure centre off Abbey Road. This is currently being used by the bridge contractors, Hochtief, as the base for their work rebuilding Abbey Bridge and will be empty once that work is complete. Moving would be beneficial for the fire service: the current site is awkward to access and, having originally been built in the 1960s, is very much in need of updating. A new, modern building suitable for the needs of the town and surrounding area in the 21st century is long overdue.
Just for the sake of argument, are there any reasons why we wouldn’t want this to happen? One obvious objection is that a supermarket will compete with the town centre shops rather than help drive trade to them. But I don’t think that’s realistic. Waitrose will just be a food shop, and most of the town centre shops don’t sell food. Those few that do are specialists that are unlikely to be affected. The only existing town centre shops which are likely to be in direct competition are the Co-op and Aldi. But I’m pretty sure that there’s a big enough market for all three of them – especially since the Co-op will still have the advantage of free parking, and Aldi has a very different target market. In any case, though, when M&S were applying for permission to move into the Retail Park, the most common objection was that they really ought to be in the town centre! Well, if this goes ahead we’re now getting a new town centre supermarket as well as M&S on the Retail Park, so everyone who was originally disappointed by M&S’s choice of location should be pleased. Tesco might suffer a bit (and M&S may be somewhat miffed too), as the new location will be a bit more attractive to residents from the south of the town who can reach it without going all the way through the town centre. But Tesco will retain its position as easily the largest of the town’s supermarkets and the only one which has significant non-grocery sales, so I don’t think that’s likely to be a huge loss to them.
There have been some comments on Facebook by people who think that Waitrose is too “posh” and would prefer a different supermarket, such as ASDA. Personally, I think that’s misguided. Waitrose does have a reputation for being at the upmarket end of the spectrum, certainly, but their standard range of products is no more expensive than those in Tesco or Morrisons. And I think it’s the upmarket end of the spectrum which needs filling, anyway. We’ve already got Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl, so it’s not as if the town is short on choice if what you want are “value” products. I’d be happy to see ASDA (or, for that matter, Sainsbury’s) opening a larger store somewhere off Davies Road or The Link, but Waitrose seems to me to be a near-perfect fit for the town centre.
There will, of course, be some disruption while the existing fire station is demolished and the supermarket built to replace it. But that’s unavoidable if we want Evesham to progress; we can’t preserve the town in aspic and insist that no major construction ever takes place. And, frankly, the fire station is an eyesore – its 1960s architecture is out of keeping with the rest of Merstow Green, and the blank wall at the bottom of the Old Brewery car park is just plain ugly. Opening up that space to the car park and constructing a new, sensitively designed supermarket (and Waitrose have good form in that respect) will make the whole area more attractive. From a visual point of view, it’s hard to see this as anything other than an improvement.
I can’t see any sensible objection to moving the fire station. The additional few seconds it will take fire engines to reach destinations in the north of the town after driving along Abbey Road will be balanced by shaving those same few seconds off the time taken to reach destinations south of the river. The new location will actually be fractionally closer to the majority of the town’s population anyway! And there are no other plausible uses for the depot site after the bridge works are complete, so the alternative is just to leave it empty for the foreseeable future.
The only plausible issue that I can see is the one raised by my counterpart Charles Tucker, Mayor of Pershore, who – in his capacity as a Wychavon councillor – raised the possibility that if Wychavon go ahead with buying the site, they could be left with a white elephant if Waitrose change their mind and decide not to go ahead. That’s clearly a genuine concern which needs to be addressed, as any loss made by Wychavon would be a cost to council tax payers. But it’s an issue which can be addressed by careful negotiation and timing, and avoiding getting committed to the purchase until it’s overwhelmingly likely that the project will go ahead. Wychavon is a well-run council, and I’m confident that the officers and staff will make the right decisions. So I don’t think this is a serious concern. The biggest danger is simply that the project gets abandoned and nothing changes, and that isn’t any worse than what we’ve already got.
So what might cause it not to happen? Well, there are a lot of organisations involved, all of which need to agree to it. Wychavon District Council, Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service and, of course, Waitrose all have to make a firm commitment to the project for it to go ahead. And it’s unlikely, even if the major players are agreed, that it would happen without the support of VECTA and the Evesham Market Town partnership. So a lot of agreement needs to be reached, and it only takes one participant to throw a spanner in the works. This is by no means a done deal yet.
I do think, though, that we’re at the point now where it’s more likely than not. I’m encouraged by the statement given by Waitrose to the press (quoted above), which affirms the strength of their interest. And I know that Wychavon and the local trade associations are firmly in favour.
All round, then, I’m certain that this is good news. Assuming everything goes to plan, Evesham gets a supermarket in the centre of town, the fire service gets a new, modern fire station and a brownfield industrial site is brought back into permanent use. There are, of course, a considerable number of hurdles to cross before it can become a reality. But things are moving in the right direction.
Waitrose lemons photo by Dave Crosby