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Future of Christchurch Waitrose under threat as car park sale is rejected

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Waitrose has threatened not to renew its lease unless its landlord gains control of the car park (Photo: Google)
Waitrose has threatened not to renew its lease unless its landlord gains control of the car park (Photo: Google)

CHRISTCHURCH is in danger of losing its Waitrose store after the town’s councillors voted not to sell the adjoining car park.

Waitrose leases the site from the landowner, a General Motors pension fund, which wants to buy the council-owned bypass car park to secure the supermarket’s continued occupation.

The lease runs out in 2027, and Waitrose has said it will not renew unless the landlord gains control of the car park.

The conservative cabinet had recommended the site be sold with the option to buy it back if it was no longer needed as a car park, but that recommendation was changed at a special meeting held on Monday, at which Christchurch members voiced strong opposition to losing a valuable asset.

At a full council meeting yesterday (Tuesday), leader Cllr Drew Mellor announced the Conservative group would abstain from the vote and leave the decision to the ward representatives who were “best placed”.

Cllr Lesley Dedman likened the move to “selling off the family silver”, and said councillors had recently been alerted to a memo from Waitrose managers to staff assuring them their jobs were safe.

“This threat of moving out of the town was just a bargaining tool,” she said.

Cllr Mike Cox said that if Waitrose cannot make its Christchurch store pay “they need to give up and go home because this is prime territory for the brand”.

“I’m absolutely convinced Waitrose isn’t going anywhere,” he said.

Cllr Margaret Phipps told the meeting: “This looks like asset stripping by the Conservative administration, which actually comes as no surprise because this is exactly the sort of thing we warned about when this BCP merger took place.

“It seems Christchurch’s assets are not safe – I do hope this is not a trend that is going to continue.”

Concerns were also raised over losing the 202 parking spaces provided by the site, and councillors warned the sale price was too low.

However, Cllr Nigel Brooks, lead member for retail strategy and Christchurch regeneration, warned the threat was real.

“John Lewis suffered a £517m loss in the year to January,” he said. “They are looking for savings of £300m in the year to 2022 and they are, in fact, closing stores – they have shut four in the last few months.

“The other point to consider is the way that shopping has changed from instore to online – the dynamics are dramatically changing and everything is under review.

“The question, therefore, for members is to what extent is this risk going to be fulfilled?”

Some members argued this was not simply a “Christchurch issue” and said the decision should be one that is made by the council as a whole, particularly as many shoppers who use the store were likely to be from outside Christchurch.

Cllr Chris Rigby, for Winton East, pointed out that his area was home to Christchurch’s nearest Waitrose store.

“This could have a knock-on effect, in terms of traffic and pollution, if those people who would usually shop at that Waitrose drive to Winton,” he warned.

“These decisions we make don’t just affect specific areas. This merger is a complete waste of time if all we are going to do is fan out decisions.”

Cllr Andy Hadley, for Poole, said the advice that non-Christchurch councillors should abstain was a “derogation of duty”.

“It was the Conservatives who linked the three boroughs together, and yet if it’s convenient to them they don’t want to take responsibility – this is a huge weakness,” he said.

Councillors voted not to sell the bypass car park, with abstentions from non-Christchurch Conservative members.

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