What next for Westbridge Park?
Stafford Borough Councillor Mike Heenan talks to the Gazette
Stafford Borough Councillor Mike Heenan, who until recently also led its ruling Conservative Group, has announced his retirement both from local politics and business in May. First elected to the Borough in 1976, he has served at total of 31 years, (with an 8-year gap between 1995 –2003 to pursue his business activities). In 1990/1, he was Mayor of Stafford. As a key mover of the proposed Leisure Strategy for Stone, Cllr Heenan gave the Gazette this opportunity to explain his position in a farewell interview with Christine Conlin.
Gazette: Cllr Heenan, many people in Stone feel that the town has played second to Stafford, missing out on commercial developments and infrastructure improvements to match its growth in residential building and population since the mid 1990s.
Cllr Heenan: I’ve never viewed Stone as playing second to Stafford, but as an attractive market town which stands on its own two feet. Attracting commercial development is something councils actually have little control over as operators look at a town’s demographics and site their businesses accordingly. That said, there will be some commercial development around the planned Gas Power Station at Meaford thanks to support from the Local Enterprise Partnership City Deal. But in recent years, Stone has transformed itself into an attractive leisure destination with a variety of restaurants and a thriving food culture. It therefore makes sense to base its future development primarily on leisure activities. Stone has admittedly not had as much spent on leisure as it should have had over the years and the Borough’s Leisure Strategy for Stone seeks to address this.
Gazette: In November 2012, you encountered fierce opposition at a mass meeting when you and council executives introduced the first version of the Borough’s Leisure Strategy for Stone (a new Westbridge Park Leisure Centre partly funded by the selling part of the park as a supermarket site). Did this surprise you? What lessons did you and colleagues take away from that meeting?
Cllr Heenan: What surprised us was the widespread assumption that designating Westbridge Park in the planning documents as a ‘mixed use’ site meant that the Council would sell other areas of it for residential development as well. I assure you we never had any intention to do so. But there were indeed lessons we at the Borough had to learn: firstly, that supermarket car parking must not extend beyond the Westbridge Park service road into its green space. Secondly, we had to find a way of preserving those green spaces in perpetuity for the people of Stone. At that meeting, I promised to respond to these concerns.
Gazette: So the opposition you encountered did not make you call the Leisure Strategy itself into question?
Cllr Heenan: Basically no, because there was universal agreement on the need for a new leisure centre – even the campaign group Keep Westbridge Park Green support that. In fact, the Council’s own consultation showed there was a large body of opinion who wanted the leisure facilities and were prepared to bite the supermarket bullet. We had more responses in favour than against.
Gazette: But in his January 2013 report on Stafford Borough Plan, the Inspector deemed the siting of a supermarket on Westbridge Park ‘unsound’ because it was outside Stone’s original town centre boundary. How would this objection be overcome?
Cllr Heenan: By including another stage in the Westbridge Park planning progress, known as sequential tests. Sequential tests are a series of studies which evaluate whether the proposed development is best built on an alternative site nearby. If the answer is negative, the original site can be developed. Stafford Local Plan has been ratified, although it is being legally challenged, along with many other local plans, by a developer who is seeking to raise their housing allocations. But it is a challenge we in Stafford expect to overcome.
Gazette: In November 2014 the Borough went on to unveil its revised Leisure Strategy for Stone.
Cllr Heenan: Yes, and I believe this revised Leisure Strategy does indeed meet the concerns of Stone residents. It scales back the retail element from a supermarket to a foodstore, confines development to the east of the Westbridge Park service road and undertakes to gift the park’s green spaces to Stone Town Council or appropriate charitable trust. The package also has other features, new play facilities at Westbridge Park for older children, converting Alleyne’s pool into a sports hall, converting Alleyne’s artificial turf pitch into a 3G pitch for competitive football and improving football facilities at Walton Common. It would transform the recreational facilities in Stone.
Gazette: But by selling less land to a developer, surely the Borough would have to dip deeper into its own coffers?
Cllr Heenan: Agreed. The revised Leisure Strategy would require the council to fund about 50% of the £6 million budget, but I am leaving the Borough finances in good heart (with no council tax increases for the last five years and no increase envisaged). The new leisure package is something we can just about afford and I feel it is right to use some of the council’s reserves for this purpose. Based on reasonable assumptions, it will not be an ongoing cost on the Council tax.
Gazette: Now that you are stepping down from the Borough Council, how confident are you that Stone’s revised Leisure Strategy will be implemented?
Cllr Heenan: The Council Cabinet have agreed the scheme, but of course it is partly a commercial development with Marks & Spencer, who would operate the foodstore. The Council has reached the ‘heads of agreement’ stage with Marks & Spencer, but like any retail operator, they cannot legally commit to it until the scheme receives planning permission.
Gazette: Which is unlikely to be given before the May Council elections?
Cllr Heenan: Indeed, though I believe Council officers have already started the ball rolling. But if a Conservative majority were re-elected, I would expect the Council will pursue this Leisure Strategy, though no council can bind its successor, of course. Having said that, the outcome of this year’s council elections will be more than usually difficult to predict. Firstly the number of council seats is reducing from 59 to 40. Secondly, this year, local elections coincide with the General Election, which always affects the council vote.
Gazette: On a personal note, do you have any plans for your retirement?
Cllr Heenan: Well, I will be mainly staying in Stafford, where I’ve lived since age 13, and devoting more time to my family and my many ancilliary roles. As well as being a non-executive director of several local companies, I am Honorary Treasurer of the County Showground, and am helping to launch a new community radio station, Stafford FM, this spring.
Gazette: Is there anything you’re looking forward to, particularly?
Cllr Heenan: Increased footfall coming to Stafford town centre, where I’m already enjoying watching the new retail centre taking shape on the old Riverside Leisure Centre site. The multi-storey car park is already going up where Tesco’s used to be. The car park will be open from September this year, with Marks and Spencer coming in by Christmas with Morrisons following on soon afterwards. This means all the more to me as it’s a scheme I helped the Council rescue after the original developer (who built Stafford’s new leisure centre) went out of business in the credit crunch. Not forgetting the new 6-screen cinema on the derelict ‘Chicago Rock’ site in Bridge Street. And of course seeing more people coming into Stone and using its High Street as a result of the new leisure centre and food outlet being built at Westbridge Park.