A new M&S superstore has arrived in Maidstone – but what happened to all the jobs it was supposed to bring?
M&S opened at Eclipse Park last Wednesday, employing 130 staff, but all of them, store manager Andre Brincat said, had been transferred from other Marks and Spencer operations.
Back in August 2018, when the planning application was being considered, the County Town was promised the shop would bring 300 jobs to the area.
The figure was important because part of the planning site was designated in the Maidstone Local Plan for employment use, such as offices or light industrial and not retail.
Council planning officers at the time argued that the borough could ignore that aspect of its own policy because the 300 retail jobs would make up for the loss.
Now it transpires that no-one has gained employment as a result of the store's opening, though it is true some of the staff have been transferred from the M&S women's-wear branch in Maidstone's Week Street, which has recently closed. In theory, they could have lost their jobs without the new store.
At the time of the council's planning committee meeting, M&G Real Estate, which operates the Fremlin Walk shopping centre, warned: "It is unclear how many new jobs will actually be created by the proposal, if the existing staff are to be relocated or how the proposal could increase overall employment capacity on the site."
But the company's warning went unheeded by the councillors on the planning committee who voted unanimously in favour of the development.
At the time, the planning officers accepted that the out-of-town store would "have some negative impact upon Maidstone town centre and other local retail centres".
But they said that an offer of £300,000 from the developer towards the council's town centre public realm projects would mitigate that.
We asked both Maidstone council and M&S to respond to the question of the missing jobs. Both provided statements saying how happy they were that the new store had opened, but neither responded to the jobs issue.
So we have asked individual members of the planning committee what they thought.
Cllr Robert Eves (Con) said: "I am very disappointed in what has happened.
"I’m aware that retailers like M&S are struggling.
"However, they committed to this project, made a big song and dance about it and now they’ve gone back on their promises.
"This is something we must prevent from happening in Maidstone and we must look to not only protect current employees within the town and borough, but also look to increase opportunities for those needing jobs.
"This just shows a complete lack of commitment and empathy on their part."
Cllr Denis Spooner (Con) said: "I think the main reason that planning permission for this new store was granted was because a previous permission had already been granted on the site for a Waitrose store.
"It would, therefore, have been extremely difficult - if not impossible - for MBC to have refused a retail use for M&S having recently granted permission for a similar use for Waitrose on the same site.
"Job creation for new developments is frequently a tantalising 'carrot' dangled before planning committees by developers but, there is no way that the actual provision and maintenance of the jobs promised can be secured under planning law.
"It is disappointing that only 130 and not 300 new jobs have been created at the new store and that all of them have been transferred from M&S's other stores, but there is absolutely nothing that can done.
"The retail trade - and M&S more than many others - was suffering from a loss of trade before the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year. In the current circumstances, I think we should be grateful that M&S has continued to open a new store in Maidstone in such difficult trading conditions."
Cllr Keith Adkinson (Lab) said: "Unfortunately, these sorts of jobs promises are often made as one of the means of persuading planners that a scheme should go ahead.
"Clearly though employment decisions are completely outside the remit of the planning committee.
"We cannot and should not decide how many jobs should be provided for any individual application.
"So, while it is disappointing that the promised jobs have not materialized, it's a good thing that M&S still think that Maidstone is a good place to build their latest store.
"It's just a pity that it could not have been in a more sustainable town centre location accessible by public transport or on foot, for example the old sorting office site."
Cllr Ashleigh Kimmance (Lib Dem) was relatively relaxed about the issue.
He said: "Given the situation with Covid and the problems that the High Streets are having to cope with in recovery, I was very surprised that the M&S project even got off the ground.
"I thought it might be shelved.
"I would not be over-critical.
"It is going to be a while before we are back to some sense of normality."
Cllr John Perry (Con) said: "With Covid-19 a lot has changed.
"The provision of local jobs is clearly an important factor, but there are other benefits for Maidstone.
"Residents have an improved shopping experience and there are the economic benefits of attracting more visitors to the borough and the town.
"It is not uncommon for major store operators to open their stores with teams brought in from elsewhere.
"Often these are then gradually replaced with local staff once they are fully trained."
Cllr Paul Wilby (Lib Dem) said: "While disappointed that no new jobs have been created, I am also aware that M&S like most retail business have gone through a very difficult time and has had to relocate members of staff from other stores that have closed down.
"While this is not ideal, it has saved people from being made redundant."
Planning committee chairman Clive English (Lib Dem) said: "To be frank given the carnage on the High Street just now, I am not minded to be overly critical."
Today, M&S announced it was to shed 7,000 jobs across the country to "make the firm stronger". Which stores will be affected has not been revealed.
The company is starting a three-month consultation process with its staff. It is not known whether there will be job losses at Eclipse Park.