Lidl has got permission to build its second Mullingar store after An Bord Pleanála suggested the council was “motivated to divert the applicant” to its preferred council-owned site on the C-Link road.
However, in an effort to politically diffuse this, Fiona Fair - the site inspector for An Bord Pleanala - says in her report that is just a “respectful” suggestion, and would require “an independent determination” for proof.
It is believed Westmeath County Council would have preferred a development of this nature to complete the C-Link roundabout on the site opposite the Educate Together school at the entrance to Raithín, and had made overtures to Lidl on this, but the German firm stuck with the more landmark Athlone Road location.
Formally, the council refused Lidl’s application in November in line with the County Development Plan 2008-2014 to protect town centres from edge-of-town development as has been painfully prevalent in recent years.
However, after Ms Fair - coincidentally a former Westmeath County Council employee - visited the site on March 16 after the retailer appealed the November descision, she felt a retail outlet at this site “will not undermine the town centre’s vitality and viability”.
“The proposed food store is required and well located [close] to a walking residential catchment devoid of accessible convenience shopping,” she said in her report.
“The consideration of the current Westmeath [Development] Plan policy and objectives have been interpreted narrowly and without respect to current circumstance...There is an abundance of planning policies and objectives to support the development,” she added.
She went on to point out that there has been “no significant retail growth since 2007”, as the expansion in the town (one new Aldi, and one granted, as well as a Tesco extension plan ) has been cancelled out by the closure of Marks & Spencer in overall terms of square footage.
In August initial speculation had the German retail giant making overtures for the site of the former Williams Waller granary in the industrial estate, however this fell through, and they focussed instead on the site of the old Horizon ballroom at the bottom of Patrick Street.
They applied to build a 1,900 sqm discount foodstore and off-licence similar to teir unit in Marlinstown, with parking for 79 vehicles, and jobs for up to 20 people in October.
This was refused less than seven weeks later, ostensibly on the grounds of protecting the ongoing viability of the town centre.
Only two submissions on this application were received at the Planning Department, a boilerplate objection from Tesco, and a letter in support of the site from Cllr Mick Dollard.
He pointed out that nine years ago the former county manager Anne McGuinness had opposed Lidl’s enormous national distribution centre in Robinstown on a zoning issue, but a material contravention to the then County Development Plan amended this and “140 people are employed there now”.