Battle of the flowers

A GARDEN centre has had a change of heart after it was accused of putting Morpeth’s bloom bid at risk over a planning dispute.

The Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade has strongly objected to Heighley Gate Nursery and Garden Centre’s application to allow more of its floor space to be used for retail and a wider range of goods to be sold.

In response, the business initially said it would not provide hanging baskets and troughs to the chamber at its usual discounted rate because it was unhappy about not getting the chance to speak to members about its proposals as it was a member of the group itself at the time.

Traders warned that as a result Heighley Gate would be damaging the whole town as Morpeth’s Northumbria in Bloom entry would be significantly weakened.

As well as providing flowers and plants, staff from the Garden Centre Group-owned business also water them every other day.

However, after the Herald contacted the centre about its decision to withdraw support, it has now reversed its position and says the discount is still available.

But the chamber says this could be too little, too late as it is already in negotiations with another local business about providing the baskets and troughs.

It objected to the planning application because it believes that if it is successful, it would create an out-of-town store that would harm businesses in the town centre.

Heighley Gate General Manager Roger Wale wrote to Chamber Chairman John Beynon a day before it was due to be decided by a county council planning committee, saying it would no longer be appropriate to remain a member of the group.

The letter, which was read out at its monthly meeting on Monday, also said: “It is also very disappointing that as a member of the chamber we were not involved with discussions prior to the chamber lodging its opposition to our planning application.

“If we had been given this opportunity, we would have been able to reassure members that it is not our intention to take trade away from the town centre and explain fully why we were seeking the changes requested in the planning application.

“It is regrettable that having supported the chamber for a number of years, the same courtesy has not been reciprocated when the occasion arose for the chamber to support our business.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to let you know that we are withdrawing the offer made previously to supply members of the chamber with hanging baskets, troughs etc at a discounted rate. I am sure that given the current circumstances you can understand our reasons for this.”

Members spoke of their anger over the decision, including Vice Chairman Debbie Anderson.

She said: “For Heighley Gate to punish Morpeth because of our objection is very sad and very wrong.

“This has left the Northumbria in Bloom bid in a difficult situation just weeks away from summer judging.”

Les English, who has led the Chamber’s bloom efforts for many years, said: “It seems odd that Heighley Gate would withdraw its services because of a tit-for-tat situation.”

Chairman John Beynon said that the standard protocol for planning bids is that the applicants approach the objectors to speak to them, like Sainsbury’s and Tesco did when they applied for supermarkets on the edge of town, not the other way around.

He received a call from Mr Wale on Tuesday evening to say that the discount was available again.

Speaking to the Herald yesterday, Mr Beynon said: “Mr Wale did apologise and we are pleased that Heighley Gate has seen sense.

“But it may have come too late because when we received the letter we had to try to find an alternative supplier for the baskets and troughs.

“We are in negotiations with a local business, which has put a lot of effort into looking at what it can do, and it would be unfair to pull out of the discussions when we have already started them.

“I also think members would be uncomfortable about going back to Heighley Gate after what has happened.

“If we do go with an alternative, the issue we would have to sort out is watering the flowers and we may need help to carry it out.”

The Heighley Gate planning application was due to be decided earlier this month, but Northumberland County Council’s Area Planning Committee North opted to defer the matter to seek more information.