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Does this lovely town really need yet another superstore?

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 19, 2013

Gulval Church's 15th century tower is dwarfed by a huge Sainsbury's store, which now overshadows the approach into Penzance PICTURE: PHIL MONCKTON

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It was in 1984 that Prince Charles made his famous speech criticising the architecture he deemed unsympathetic to its surroundings.

Nearly 30 years later the debate still rages as to whether the royal stirrer was right in his assessment of modern town planning or hopelessly out of step with public opinion.

The event that sparked his outburst was the proposed Sainsbury Wing extension to the National Gallery in London. The phrase he used to describe it was "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend".

You can say what you like about Charles, but he certainly has an eloquent way of sticking the knife in.

So it's a shame, considering his role as Duke of Cornwall, that no one tipped him off about another "Sainsbury" development which surely fits the description of being "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend". It isn't possible to know what Prince Charles would say for sure about what has been done to the Penzance approach road, but it seems pretty likely he wouldn't approve.

Until a few years ago the road west of Hayle presented a pleasant thoroughfare to returning expatriates and holidaymakers alike. Through Crowlas and up over Ludgvan Leaze, Mount's Bay soon came into view, followed by a pleasing sweep down to Longrock and the long approach to the old town itself.

Then came the Longrock bypass and with it an array of retail sheds. DIY stores dwarfed everything around them, blocking any view of Gulval's flower fields, casting a concrete and tarmac shadow over once-productive land, and encroaching on the narrow coastal strip.

It got worse. No sooner had the sheds appeared than the "in-fill" began. Supermarkets saw their chance for a killing and, with unseemly haste, began their unequal battle with local planners to grab yet more plots for development.

The final nail in the coffin of what was once a delightful first impression of the historic seaside market town came this summer when the long-dreaded Sainsbury's superstore began to rise from the much-missed former heliport site.

How this monstrosity ever received planning permission is anyone's guess. Not only is it grossly out of proportion with the local topography, but its mock maritime design would be laughable if it were not such an eyesore. You can just hear the architect setting out his case to planners: "Oh yes, it will be so 'in keeping' with the area. I'll even clad it in timber and granite and fashion the roof into the shape of a breaking wave."

And the decision-makers lapped it up, completely forgetting how much the impaired view caused by the superstore will impact on the daily lives of the people they are supposed to represent.

More important than aesthetics, however, is the question of necessity. Does this lovely town really need yet another superstore?

And what is to become of the town centre traders whose livelihoods are put in jeopardy when Sainsbury's opens its doors in a few weeks? How can they possibly compete?

Some may argue, with justification, that supermarkets draw shoppers into a town, and in turn benefit local traders.

But how many supermarkets does one small town need? Or is there simply no limit to the number of applications from multinationals that councillors are prepared to approve?

For those not familiar with Penzance's supermarket shopping opportunities, here goes: in a stretch of seafront less than half a mile long there is a large Morrisons, a large Tesco and now a massive Sainsbury's. But that's not all. It's only a short hop to the Co-op in Wherrytown, or Lidl next door, or the Iceland on Wharf Road, or the Co-op in Queens Square, or even the other Tesco in Market Jew Street.

How can its town centre traders – bakers, butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, newsagents, sweet shops, clothes shops, florists, book shops, off-licences, tobacconists, stationers, hardware stores, ironmongers – ever hope to compete with yet another retail monster in their midst?

As a sweetener, Penzance Town Council will receive £249,500 to fund measures to mitigate the impact of the new Sainsbury's store on Penzance businesses. We'll have to wait and see how they propose to pull off this miracle.

Sainsbury's approval wasn't market-driven or consumer-driven, and it's not about turning the clocks back either. No one is suggesting we return to a time of carrying a basket from shop to shop each day. We all use supermarkets, we all like the convenience; it's a fact of life. But surely there's a limit.

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