The list of potential villains is impressive and includes British International Helicopters, Cornwall Council, Penzance Town Council, Sainsbury’s themselves of course, even the pungent memory of Robert Maxwell. But if we could go back and run it again it’s not clear just where we’d stop it to make things come out right.
Let’s start with the most obvious problem, why it’s so big and ugly.
Sainsbury’s have done their homework about Eastern Green. When I took the school bus to Penzance there was only a single agricultural shed on the north side of the road from Long Rock to Ponsandane. All the rest was marsh, often flooded in winter. Even the sea occasionally intruded, across the road or up the drains. When I drive in now I sometimes think fondly of global warming, imagining fish swimming through the ruins of KFC, Tescos and the Jelbert blockhouses. But if that happened there’d be a new island, Mount Sainsbury, because Sainsbury’s took the precaution and the considerable expense of raising the whole site level by a metre (they say – it looks more).
To accommodate the Park ’n Ride, its own car park, the petrol station, depots etc it opted to build the store itself right next to the road. The plans are clear on this, but plans don’t show elevation, the unprecedented height involved. The colour sketches, taken from a discreet angle to minimise the impact, show its closeness to the road, though masked with mature trees which make it look smaller. The trees and the ‘Boulevard’ – yes honestly - have now been deleted from the plan with the blessing of Cornwall Council. So where there was a heliport at the rear of the site there’s now a massive mess of a building on a raised plinth, completely blocking out the view up to Gulval village and the lush fields of the ‘Golden Mile’.
Finally locals wondered why on earth it couldn’t have been approached from the rear, Jelbert Way, as the heliport had been? Why the need for a new roundabout, traffic lights?
Don’t be silly. Sainsbury’s didn’t put it there for us, although they’ll say so, especially in the winter months. They want to divert the golden stream from the A 30 itself, the road to Lands End, people who had no intention of stopping or shopping in Penzance anyway but who will see the “Sainsbury’s” sign all tall and obvious with its inviting slip road off the new roundabout, and pour in. Perhaps they’ll only want the toilet for the kids. Perhaps they’re stocking up for their holiday cotty. NeitherTesco or Morrison’s have anything like that visibility, in fact is there any other supermarket in Cornwall this close to the A 30? Why should Sainsbury’s take their chance with traffic finding its way round the back when they can suck it straight off the highway?
But as to why it’s there in the first place we need to go back a few years.
WHERE DID THE HELICOPTERS GO?
In the early 1960s BEA, British European Airways, decided to be adventurously trendy and go into helicopters, then thought to be the transport of the future. The Scilly route was their first venture and they formed “BEA Helicopters” in its honour. It was just the right size for an experiment, and although it began service at St Just, it was the availability of a greenfield site right beside Penzance, with its road and rail interchange that clinched the deal. The new heliport was operational by 1st September 1964, the first commercial civil helicopter route in Britain.
The risk paid off. Passengers flocked to it in increasing numbers, partly just for the excitement of helicopter flight, and it made enough money to continue through the winter months when it also carried a substantial return freight of early Scillonian flowers. From this high point the novelty slowly wore off and numbers were declining even before 23rd June 1983 when a flight to Scilly in thick mist misjudged its height and hit the sea, killing 20 passengers with only six survivors.
Numbers had fallen by about a third by 1986 when the successors of BEAH, British Airways Helicopters, were privatised and sold to Robert Maxwell’s Mirror Group. He formed British International Helicopters, though he had no personal interest in helicopters (apart from his own). It was a piece of business, and as BIH it was soon sold on by Maxwell, and by several subsequent owners.
However the final crisis in the Scilly route was not due to lack of demand, though profits had dropped considerably following increases in fuel prices. Helicopters are far more thirsty than aeroplanes and the margins were shrinking. The service requirements to conform to safety regulations were also expensive, demanding that after a certain number of hours of operation the helicopter had to be taken out of service and stripped right down to a bare fuselage before being put back together again.
But the real crunch was the age of the vehicles, the same vintage model of S-61 Sikorskys that had initiated the service in the 1960s. They were (as I once pointed out) the same age as the Austin A40, and would you fly over the sea in one of those?
BIH eventually had to make a choice – to replace at least two helicopters, divert them from other more lucrative activities, or close the route down. It was by far the smallest and least profitable of their operations, which also included contracts with the armed forces (especially in the Falklands) and servicing North Sea oil rigs.
Had they concluded it wasn’t worth it and simply pulled out, there would have been little controversy. Another carrier may have picked up the route and continued the service. But once the idea of selling the heliport took hold, voices in BIH – probably their accountants’ – pointed out that a large strategic site just outside Penzance would have far greater value if it wasn’t restricted to being a heliport. Other commercial interests might fancy it. A supermarket for example.
Discreet discussions about marketing the site were taking place as the first decade of the 2000s came to a close. Deals were discussed. A price was established – provided approval for change of use could be achieved. When Sainsbury’s secretly decided it would take on the other supermarkets ringing Penzance and knock them out of the water, £9,000,000 was the prize at stake for BIH.
Penzance was initially wary of supermarkets. In the early 1980s Penwith DC turned down Tesco when they wanted to build one on the gasworks site by the harbour (though, despite popular legend, it didn’t turn down M & S, who changed their mind). Many locals were furious that Penzance lacked a supermarket at a time when supermarkets were considered to be a blessing rather than a curse. But Penzance wasn’t to be neglected for long and Penwith’s planners at one point faced no fewer than nine simultaneous applications to build one. Safeways succeeded first, now Morrisons, followed shortly by Tesco.
The romance eventually soured as the supermarkets, having grabbed the local market with promises of cheap shopping, began to ratchet up their prices. But a series of slumps coupled with silly rent rises hit town centre shops hard and the balance shifted towards out-of-town shopping complexes. The 2008 financial crisis was the last straw for many, and as the town centre gradually closed up or turned to bottom-feeding businesses, the still-flourishing supermarkets were held mainly responsible for the decline of the high street.
Another seemingly unrelated matter surfaced in 2008. After years of secret gestation a County Council group known as the Route Partnership revealed its future plans for the sea link to the Isles of Scilly. These were colossally ambitious, involving the purchase of a new super-size “Scillonian”, major redevelopment of both harbours to accommodate it, lengthening the South Pier, and constructing a large freight depot between it and the Jubilee Pool. This caused a spontaneous wave of protest in Penzance. Local people complained that they hadn’t been properly consulted over such a large-scale and hugely expensive scheme, and that while serving the needs of the islands it involved a considerable sacrifice of Penzance’s harbour and eastern promenade.
The row became increasing contentious and bitter, dividing the town itself and making de-facto opponents of the Isles of Scilly Council who claimed that the protestors were holding the islands to ransom. In increasingly intemperate language Penzance, whose Council opposed the scheme, was depicted as a selfish community who cared nothing for the future prosperity or even survival of the Isles of Scilly. The islands’ Council was so consumed with the sea-link controversy that warning signs regarding the future of the helicopter service went mainly unremarked.
Into this poisoned atmosphere BIH lobbed its bombshell. It wasn’t worth its while to continue the helicopter route. BUT there was a way to save it! If they could sell the site to Sainsbury’s, now revealing its interest, the nine million pounds could subsidise the purchase of new helicopters, and the service could continue from a so-far unspecified alternative site.
Cornwall Council, which at that point wished Penzance to go to hell, was happy to pass anything BIH wanted. But what would the Town Council do? Would they approve plans for a totally unwanted third supermarket to drive another sword into the heart of the town’s shopping centre? Or would they stand up against it, at the risk of demonstrating once again that Penzance held its own self-interest above the prosperity of the Isles of Scilly? It was a classic dilemma, a dog’s choice. In September 2011 in the heart of the political storm they gathered in the Council Chamber to make their decision.
106 GOOD REASONS
In reality few if any of the councillors believed that their choice would be the last word. Too many objections had been overborne in the past by appeals to the Minister. In terms of a major complex deal a town council is regarded from above as a minnow, and knows it. However it is a Statuary Consultee, supposed to reflect local feeling, and therefore given respect by those higher up the ladder. The presence in the Council Chamber of representatives of both Sainsbury’s and BIH (just to answer questions, you understand...) hardly diminished the feeling that this was merely a paper exercise. But the council still represented the people of Penzance. If they felt it the development was not in the town’s interests they had to vote accordingly, and if this meant subverting the Isles of Scilly’s air link as they had opposed changes to the sea link, they had to take the flak and do it.
Another elephant in the room was the potential of a “106 agreement”. This is defined by the Town and Country Planning Act as a “mechanism which makes a development proposal acceptable in planning terms, that would not otherwise be acceptable.” In other words either some restriction of the use of the site or a sum of money by way of compensation. Or in even fewer words, a bribe. Even if the eventual outcome was inevitable, part of the focus was on exacting as worthwhile a price as possible.
What Sainsbury’s put on the table looked like a substantial package. However some on the council felt that to refuse the application, while it might not prevent the development in the future, might persuade the applicants to come back with a better offer. Whereas to submit right away would sign away any such chance, and send the wrong message as regards local feelings.
Those were the issues in a long and tense meeting. The vote when it finally came it was as close as it could be, 7-6 in favour of approval. Sainsbury’s were in
HELIPORT SEEKS GOOD HOME
BIH had its wish, and 9,000,000 good reasons to be grateful. Now it had to find an alternative heliport. Or at least be seen to try.
The most promising site was land immediately adjacent to the east of the heliport. It offered what seemed to be plenty of room, minimal disruption and reorganisation, but BIH declared the site inadequate.
Next was an unlikely link-up with the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company to share facilities at St Just, where the service had begun. This was taken seriously by few.
-require the co-operation of the Steamship Company in providing facilities for a rival air service.
- offer a more expensive and slower service to the same destination
- be bedevilled, as the existing service was, by the famous St Just fog.
Not surprisingly the Steamship Company politely refused the offer of marriage.
The most controversial of BIH’s proposals was to build a completely new heliport on a greenfield site beside St Erth railway station. It’s impossible to say how serious this application was though BIH pursued it as if they had every hope of success. No costings were published. It would have been a longer journey when fuel margins were already tight, and had a much wider ‘footprint’, unlike Eastern Green where the flights went almost immediately over the sea. As well as issues with the land and the loss of trees the scheme fell foul of a bitter and spirited (and entirely predictable) campaign against it by local people on the grounds of noise and pollution. BIH said OK, if that’s how you feel we’ll just take our money and see if we can run a service from Newquay. However it was soon clear that the cost of such flights would be prohibitive. So BIH said OK, we’ll just take our money. The Isles of Scilly service ceased on October 31st 2012.
PARK AND CATCH-A-BUS
In the end we were all losers (except the 140 people who wrote letters of support for Sainsbury’s, on the grounds that it might make the other two more competitive, or that they’d been used to shopping at Sainsbury’s until they moved to Cornwall and expected the same facilities here).
The Isles of Scilly lost their helicopter service, quite possibly for good. Efforts are still going on to replace it, but devising a viable and affordable service is a very big ask. Tresco in particular feels the loss, having aimed all its holiday marketing at the luxury bracket with its direct air link. Wealthy visitors now need to catch a boat from St Mary’s like anyone else.
Penzance shopping centre has a monstrous counter-attraction rising like a kraken from the sea, whose range of merchandise we still don’t know. Sainsbury’s will trumpet their employment opportunities, but the heliport provided those too, including some skilled mechanical posts, and the variable hours on offer at £6.71 ph will do little to improve the local economy.
And what of the famous 106 Agreement? What did we get?
On the face of it Sainsbury’s offered Cornwall Council – Penzance weren’t involved in the negotiations – a total of £1.6m of investment in the local community. It wasn’t over-generous, but could have made quite a difference. However the money was allocated for specific purposes and the devil was firmly in the detail.
Of the £1.6m certain one-off sums were granted. These were:
- £152,000 to provide free or subsidised parking in Penzance. At up to £4 per car per session you can try to calculate how long that will last. Most of Penzance’s car-parks belong to Cornwall Council, so presumably most of this sum will go directly to them.
- £10,000 towards ‘replacement signage on the Chy-an-Mor roundabout’ – whatever that turns out to be. “Turn right for Sainsbury’s” probably, and not of much benefit to the community.
- £249,500 to Penzance Town Council, allocated for the following purposes:
£20,000 for “formulating a strategy of the improvement of the town centre” – whatever that means
£25,000 for the promoting and marketing of the town centre – one-off, remember.
£25,000 for organisation of town centre events
£49,500 for appointment of a Town Centre Co-ordinator, not sufficient for even a three-year appointment.
130,000 measly pounds to the Town Council for capital spending to improve the ‘public realm’ in the town centre
But the lion’s share, no less than £1.2m was allocated to Cornwall Council for the construction of a Park & Ride facility. At 250 spaces this allows nearly £5,000 per parking space.
Park & Rides have been classified as a Good Thing for towns, and the huge Waitrose development plan for the East of Truro came through planning mainly on the strength of providing one (plus the involvement of Prince Charles who owns the land in question). However a Park & Ride on Eastern Green, within sight of Penzance, offering the facility of leaving the queue into town only to rejoin it in a different vehicle, is a palpable nonsense. Instead it diverts £1.2 million pounds which should have come to the aid of Penzance to a deal between Sainsbury’s and Cornwall Council for a Park & Ride which won’t cost a fraction of that amount and will do Penzance no good whatever.
But the most incredible part of all is its failure to provide something most people might think an essential element of a Park & Ride scheme. Buses. There won’t be any. Just a bus stop, as it’s considered that there are already plenty of bus services available. Park & Queue. Sweet. No doubt Sainsbury’s will be providing their own dedicated fleet of buses, a la Tescos, to carry passengers in the other direction, from town to them. It’s a complete stitch-up.
Meanwhile Penzance, despite it all, continues to offer a range of shops where everything you could buy in Sainsbury’s and more is already available. Will they survive?
That, dear friends, is up to you.
Other direct action may be possible. I have started an e-petition in favour of a compulsory charge of £2 per vehicle for parking at an out-of-town supermarket, the money to be to be directed to the local community. If you’d like to support that go to: