Traders' anger at Waitrose plan to take over Podium in Bath
Supermarket giant Waitrose has drawn up controversial plans to expand its Bath store by taking over the rest of the Podium shopping centre.
Other businesses in the Northgate Street centre have reacted angrily to the proposal, which is set out in a detailed document submitted to Bath and North East Somerset Council's planning department.
Rumours about such a development have been circulating for months but have never been admitted publicly before, despite inquiries by the Chronicle.
A number of the small businesses which operate in the shopping centre say they have been misled or kept in the dark about the issue and are now worried they will be kicked out with just three months' notice.
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Martin Tracy, who owns the Atrium Gallery, found out about the plans after a checkout operator in Waitrose asked his partner where the art business was going to move.
She told the couple that supermarket staff had been informed that letters were likely to be sent out to tenants in March, giving them notice to quit.
Mr Tracy, who also runs the Framing Workshop in nearby Walcot Street, has had the shop in the Podium for 12 years and as recently as last week had been told that there were no plans for Waitrose to expand.
In fact the proposal, which would virtually double the sales floor, has been on the council's planning website since December 13. Mr Tracy said he was angered at landlord O&H Properties' handling of the issue.
"We only found out by default – nobody has made any attempt to contact us. You would have thought somebody would have had the decency to talk to us," he said.
Owner of children's clothes shop Up to Seven, Mary Dawson, said she had also been kept in the dark over the plans. She said: "It is a dreadful way to treat people. They are playing with our livelihoods.
"Everybody is talking about it all the time and there have been lots of rumours. I knew when I signed my lease that they only had to give us three months' notice but I expected people to be a bit more decent about it."
Peter Larkin, who has run the Bath Photo Optics shop in the centre for 10 years, said he had made inquiries just last week about possible live development plans and been given a flat denial that anything was going to happen.
He said: "We would need to relocate and we would need slightly longer than three months to plan that, especially in the current economic climate.
"We had been reassured that nothing was going to happen straightaway. They have never hidden that there was this long-term intention – we could see that all the way along – but we always assumed there would be a planning application which would give us some time."
In fact, the documents submitted to B&NES by Waitrose and its planning consultants CB Richard Ellis argue that the firm should not need planning permission for such a development because there would be no change of use from retail, and no external changes.
Instead, the supermarket firm has applied for a Certificate of Lawfulness for Proposed Use – asking the council to agree that this is the case.
The documents outline an intention to turn the entire ground floor into a larger food sales area, a Waitrose Home section and a cafe.
Back of house offices would move to the first floor, with a new separate entrance to the library, and the removal of the escalators.
At the moment there are 18 other units in The Podium and all but two are occupied.
This week a spokesman for Waitrose said it was "no secret" that the supermarket had been looking at expanding but that no firm plans had yet been drawn up. He said the firm may alternatively decide to reconfigure the store within its current footprint.
He said: "The landlord of the Podium has a long-standing ambition to redevelop the shopping centre in the future and approached us about the possibility of extending our shop as part of this aspiration.
"It's no secret that we have been looking for years at how we may improve our customers' shopping experience and therefore submitted the application to see whether this was a viable option for us in the first instance.
"We have also been looking at how we may reconfigure our store within our existing premises. We are only exploring these as possibilities and have no agreement with the landlord to redevelop our store."
Peter Dee-Shapland, a spokesman for London-based O&H Properties, said: "There is no deal agreed with Waitrose. We are in discussions with them generally as there is an outstanding rent review, and we are also reviewing their ambitions for the site and our own other potential development options too.
"Plans for the centre as existing are only just being prepared for us to fully review all redevelopment options. There are no imminent physical changes on site and the centre continues to trade as normal for the foreseeable future."