Lib Dems slam council’s £30,000 bill for Next store public inquiry

Artist's impression of proposed Next Home store at Meadowhall.
Artist's impression of proposed Next Home store at Meadowhall.

Deputy Prime Minister and Hallam MP Nick Clegg this week led a Liberal Democrat attack on Sheffield City Council for spending more than £30,000 on the defence of its decision to reject plans for a Next Home and Garden store near Meadowhall.

The authority’s costs at the public inquiry included £25,000 on retail consultant fees and £4,575 for a barrister.

According to a Freedom of Information request, it cost £508 to remove furniture from the council chamber so the hearing could be held, and £30 was spent on supplying water.

Officers travelled to London on three occasions for meetings with the barrister and retail consultant - at a total cost of more than £1,100 - to help prepare the case for contesting the appeal by Meadowhall co-owners British Land, which is working with Next.

Mr Clegg said the council’s approach was another example of it being “anti-business”, which drew a furious response from the Labour council.

The Deputy Prime Minister said: “Only Sheffield’s Labour councillors could think spending vast sums of local taxpayers money on a legal battle against the creation of up to 120 new jobs is a good idea.

“This money should be used for frontline services such as libraries or leisure facilities. But instead it is being stuffed into the pockets of highly paid lawyers and consultants by Labour.

“What’s more, this kind of anti-business attitude sends out a damaging message to any other potential investors who are looking for places to invest in and create new jobs.

“When you consider this alongside the lukewarm reaction to Ikea and the failure to progress the Sevenstone project, Sheffield faces the very real prospect of losing out on nearly 2,000 new jobs thanks to the local Labour council.”

A final decision on a proposed £10m Next Home and Garden scheme next to Meadowhall is awaited after a Government-appointed planning inspector held a four-day public inquiry.

The council fears the door will be opened to more out-of-town retail developments, at the expense of the “fragile” city centre, if Next is allowed to proceed with the store.

At the inquiry, the council maintained there was a suitable alternative location in the retail park off Moorfoot and St Mary’s Gate.

Labour cabinet member for business, skills and development, Coun Leigh Bramall, denied this week that the authority was ‘anti-business’, attacking the Lib Dems’ stance over the Next inquiry and, in particular, the attitude of Mr Clegg.

He said: “I think Sheffield people will find these comments unbelievable when only this week we find out that Nick Clegg and his Government are cutting over £200m of funding from South Yorkshire to help us to grow our economy, to give it to other richer areas.

“Nick Clegg’s position on this issue is all over the place and nothing more than a desperate attempt to deflect attention from his Government’s complete failure to deliver jobs and growth in Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

“We have always welcomed a Next store and have identified a site in the city centre which would accommodate it.

“This would support the development of the city centre which is vital to jobs and the future of our city. Nick Clegg is opposing policies designed to protect city centres on the one hand but on the other he goes on to criticise the council for not doing enough to support city centre retail.”

Coun Bramall added: “Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems should stop talking the city down; they have nothing more than a record of broken promises and betrayal for Sheffield.”

l Row over cut in Euro grants, page 18.