THE supermarket giant at the heart of controversial town centre redevelopment plans has pulled out at the 11th hour.
Sainsbury’s will no longer be part of the Duke of Northumberland’s £30m plans for Prudhoe.
Yesterday the Duke’s Northumberland Estates office confirmed Sainsbury’s had withdrawn and said it was now speaking to a number of possible replacements.
The Duke’s head of planning, Colin Barnes, insisted they were confident another supermarket would be found to fill the gap, although that will now not be until after the new year.
Mr Barnes said the supermarket was essential to the Prudhoe plans and Sainsbury’s decision had been taken due to difficult market conditions.
Sainsbury’s chief executive, Justin King, said: “I can confirm that Sainsbury’s will not be the operator of the food store within the Northumberland Estates scheme.
“While we are always looking for opportunities for new supermarkets and convenience stores, we have no plans for Prudhoe at present.”
Campaigners who have fought the redevelopment plans for five years greeted the news with cautious optimism – adding Sainsbury’s departure could yet scupper the unpopular scheme.
John Robson, of the Take Pride in Prudhoe action group, said: “I’m hoping that’s the case. This could be a potentially fatal blow, as a supermarket is integral to the whole redevelopment.
“Sainsbury’s were to be the centrepiece, the flagship at the centre of the project, although I still fear there could be someone else to fill the gap.
“But I would suggest that without it, the whole thing is unviable. Who is going to invest in a massive car park, for example, if there is no supermarket?”
Mr Barnes said: “The application was made a number of years ago, at which time Sainsbury’s were our preferred operators.
“As market conditions have changed, the requirements have changed. Like most of the retail market, they have to review the decision.
“But the planning permission that has been granted is not specific to Sainsbury’s. At the moment we are still waiting for the planning decision to be issued, but once we are in a position to take the development forward we will link up with a new preferred operator.
“We have a number of irons in the fire and we are confident we will get a new operator because fundamentally there is no suitable supermarket in Prudhoe.”
Opponents of the proposed redevelopment have raised concerns over sewage, the environmental impact, light pollution and even the protective wall that would have to be built close to some houses.
After numerous delays, including a High Court challenge, Northumberland County Council finally gave planning permission in June.
Anti-development campaigner Peter Gallagher, who has spoken directly with Mr King’s office, said last night: “I drew to his attention that the residents are going to be encased in a wall.
“I even joked with him that we would have Hadrian’s Wall on one side and Justin’s Wall on the other. Mr King has now emailed me to say Sainsbury’s are not going to be in the Prudhoe redevelopment.
“We have considered which other operators might be prepared to come into Prudhoe and we cannot see any for whom it would be suitable, although of course we do not have the inside information on that.
“However, it has always been Sainsbury’s that have been named as the operators and they even had a representative at the public meeting in September.
“They must have done their sums and cost comparisons and it must have been a viable proposition for them at one stage.”
Mr Barnes added: “Given the time that it has taken, we are realistic that market conditions do change and different supermarket operators go forward with different plans at different times.”