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Hoopers department store in Tunbridge Wells under threat

By Alan Smith

The future of a town's best-known department store is in doubt, according to its owners, because of council plans to put an access route through its car park.

Hoopers in Mount Pleasant Road has said it could close if Tunbridge Wells council is successful in its bid to gain permission to forge an access through the storer's Great Hall car park.

The access route would link the town to the borough's proposed new £90m Calverley Square development, which will include a theatre and council offices.

Last week a public inquiry got underway into the regeneration project got underway.It is specifically looking at the council's compulsory purchase order (CPO) of the land and the hearing is being conducted by an independent inspector appointed by the Planning Inspectorate.

The Hoopers store on the corner of Mount Pleasant Road and Grove Hill Road (7299396)
The Hoopers store on the corner of Mount Pleasant Road and Grove Hill Road (7299396)

Hoopers has been trading on the site since 1990, but prior to that the building had been home to Weekes department store since the 1920s.

The Tunbridge Wells store employs 170 people, but the company has also said council's plans have created "an existential threat" not only to that store but to group's viability as an independent retail business.

There are three other stores in the group, in Harrogate, Torquay and Wilmslow, which it says rely on services from the Tunbridge Wells branch. Between them they employ 500 people.

The borough council secured planning permission for the landmark scheme, named Calverley Square, last year.

However it has long been met with strong local opposition with many concerned about the cost and the potential impact on the popular Calverley Gardens and neighbouring homes.

Chief executive William Benson and head of economic development David Candlin are among those to have already faced questions during the inquiry.

More than 5,000 people signed a petition urging objectors to attend the hearings and voice their concerns.

The town hall insists the project will deliver around £34m of additional benefit to the local economy and much needed office space for new or existing businesses.

Hoopers has experienced a chequered trading history. In 2012, it spent several million pounds revamping the Tunbridge Wells store, which accounts for 40% of the group's turnover, but the same year closed its branch in Carlisle.

Other branches in Cheltenham, Colchester and Chichester have also closed.

The store will be the first of the "objectors" to give evidence today (Thursday) at a public inquiry that has already spent six days hearing evidence from the council why its compulsory purchase orders should be granted.

The inquiry is being conducted by Government inspector Graham Dudley at the Mercure Hotel in Pembury and is expected to continue to Friday, March 1.

Several other business are also fighting compulsory purchase orders, including the iSmile Dental Practice which is threatened with demolition.

The contested Hoopers car park contains only 34 parking spaces, but the store offers free parking in it via a customers loyalty card, which it believes is a vital marketing tool in the town that is tight for parking spaces.

Around half the stores turn-over comes from loyalty card customers.

The council is not seeking to obtain any of the car parking spaces, but rather to gain a right of access through it, which its says is essential for delivery lorries accessing the rear of the new theatre.

Hoopers QC Rupert Warren will call witnesses from a specialist health and safety consultancy who will argue this will make the access dangerous for the public to use. Hooper's managing director Debra Angus is herself expected to give evidence.

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