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M&S superstore approved for Eclipse Park, Maidstone

By Alan Smith

A Marks and Spencer superstore has been given the go-ahead by councillors, despite misgivings about its effect on the nearby town centre.

The two-storey site at Eclipse Park in Maidstone was approved by the council's planning committee last night.

It will have 7,808 sq m of floorspace and sell clothing, household goods, food and have a cafe.

Plans for the new Marks and Spencer at Eclipse Park have been approved
Plans for the new Marks and Spencer at Eclipse Park have been approved

It will become the second fashion retailer at the business park next to junction 7 of the M20, after Next opened a store in 2014.

Planning officers assured councillors the scheme was permitted under the borough's recently published Local Plan, despite that document's preference to favour the town centre.

They said Marks and Spencer had shown that no other possible sites were available.

Councillors were told again that retail development at Maidstone East station, the council's preferred site, could not possibly come forward for at least another five years.

Marks and Spencer want to move in to the site next year.

The company's retail director Sacha Berendji said that M&S had not been immune to the stresses in the retail sector.

It plans to close 100 stores by 2021 but he said the fact it is prepared to open a new store in Maidstone showed the the firm's "total confidence" in the town.

The proposed new Marks and Spencer store at Eclipse Park, Maidstone
The proposed new Marks and Spencer store at Eclipse Park, Maidstone

He said: "Maidstone will be our premier opening in 2019 for the whole country."

Although , the new store will result in the closure of the womenswear branch in Week Street, the company's second store in Week Street will continue and he promised a £300,000 refurbishment of the men's branch.

However, Mr Beredji referred to it several times as a "food store" going forwards, casting some doubt over whether the company would keep the fashion sales.

There were objections, notably from town centre business group One Maidstone and the owners of The Mall shopping centre.

Andrew Davy of Capital and Regional, owners of The Mall, said: "This will fundamentally damage the health and vitality of the town centre."

He said planning officers had understated the impact on the town.

"Maidstone will be our premier opening in 2019 for the whole country..." - Sacha Berendji, M&S

He warned that his company had been planning redevelopment of The Mall, but told councillors: "The decision you make now will affect investment decisions in the future."

M&S will be required to give £300,000 towards projects to regenerate the town centre.

Cllr Tony Harwood (Lib Dem) made a number of amendments to the conditions attached to the proposed grant of planning permission.

Among them were conditions to ensure that the store should use renewable ‘clean energy’ and have extensive on and off site native landscaping, a new pond, and bird and bat bricks built into the store. He said the changes would make the Eclipse Park Marks and Spencer store one of the greenest retail developments ever built in the UK.

He also successfully argued that £23,400 set aside from the mitigation payments to fund public art should be used specifically to fund a statue in the public realm area of the council's hoped-for Maidstone East redevelopment.

Cllr Denis Spooner (Con) said: "I do fear for the the future of Maidstone town centre. How many negative impacts can it sustain?"

However, his fears did not stop Cllr Spooner voting to approve the application. The vote was unanimous.

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