Crisis talks as Wetherspoon calls time on £2million Alnwick plan

The Corn Exchange, Alnwick
The Corn Exchange, Alnwick

Last-gasp crisis talks have been launched to salvage £2million plans to open a JD Wetherspoon in Alnwick, after the pub giant pulled out.

The company made the shock decision after becoming ‘frustrated and disappointed’ with the way its application was being handled by Northumberland County Council.

A major grievance centres on the siting of a glass and bin storage area and without a resolution, Wetherspoon said it must ‘terminate its interest’ in the Grade II-listed Corn Exchange.

The bombshell will come as a blow to supporters of the scheme, which would have created up to 50 jobs and transformed a dilapidated building which has stood empty for more than two decades.

Now, the authority wants to hold crunch talks with Wetherspoon in a bid to thrash out the issues and pull the plans back from the brink.

Alnwick county councillors Gordon Castle and Heather Cairns, who were part of discussions with key officers and building owner Kevin Thompson yesterday, believe there is a ‘fast route forward’ to settle ‘relatively minor differences’. The pair say it would be disastrous to lose the development and are confident the wrangle can be resolved.

A Wetherspoon spokesman responded: “As of the moment, we have stopped our interest in the site. But, if the council takes steps to try to resolve the issues and wishes to speak to us, we’ll be happy to meet them, in what we see as a positive step forward.”

The Gazette was told on Monday that Wetherspoon had pulled out of the project, which was approved in February last year. The stumbling block relates to the location of a glass and bin storage area which the company proposed to place in the Roxburgh Place car park at the back of the Corn Exchange.

However, this has allegedly been refused by the county council’s highways department, prompting Wetherspoon to take drastic action.

In a damning email to the county council, Wetherspoon’s senior manager, Simon Barratt, wrote: ‘Our proposal was to make use of some of the scrub land/hard standing which is being used as an informal car park.

‘In return for being allowed to use this area (for the bin store), we offered to provide the county council, and essentially the people of Alnwick, with a fully surfaced, marked car park covering the whole area, not just the area we would need to operate.

‘I hope you can appreciate this would come at a substantial cost to us, but we felt this was the right thing to do for our proposed development and for the town as a whole.

‘It is my understanding that our proposition has been opposed due to Highways’ objections about the perceived loss of parking spaces, although no formal decision has been forthcoming.

‘I struggle to comprehend this position as the area in question is currently an uneven surface without marked bays so I doubt very much whether there is a quantifiable number of spaces which would be lost, compared with the current situation.

‘There is no requirement for members of the public to park in any regular fashion and two or three vehicles could easily take up the spaces of four or five bays if marked out correctly which would neutralise any perceived loss.

‘From our perspective, we feel that the council has refused consent to locate a bin store within our site boundary while we have a different department at the same council telling us that our proposed alternative is unacceptable.

‘To date, after many months since this solution was proposed, we have not had a formal response from the council confirming whether this is or isn’t acceptable, nor has there been any attempt to work with us and find an alternative solution if it isn’t.

‘It is unfortunate that without a resolution to this proposal, JD Wetherspoon must terminate our interest in Alnwick and our attempts to restore this derelict listed building after spending tens of thousands of pounds and not securing our consents.

‘We feel, if asked, that the people of Alnwick should be informed that despite strong support for us coming to the town, the actions of the disjointed and intransigent council has not served its electorate which has resulted in Wetherspoon being unable to open.’

There are hopes that the wrangle can be resolved. Couns Castle and Cairns said: “We have met key officers and the owner of the building and went through the potential difficulties that appear to be obstructing attempts to get this off the ground.

“There is a will to get this through and the applicant has been invited to attend a meeting at County Hall, as a matter of urgency, to resolve these relatively minor differences.”

A council spokeswoman said: “Officers are committed to working with Wetherspoon and the site owner to ensure the building is brought back into use.”