CORNWALL Council has come under fire for "wasting taxpayers' money" after it revealed more than £22,000 of public money was spent on studies looking at the impact the £110 million retail development at Coyte Farm would have on trade in St Austell.
In August 2012, the council commissioned property consultants GVA to complete a retail impact assessment to gauge what impact the proposed retail park and supermarket in St Mewan would have on existing shops in the town.
Although the assessment was completed in May 2013, the local authority chose not to make the findings public until October 2013, the Cornish Guardian has learnt.
In the meantime, it commissioned Chase and Partners, a different consultancy firm, to carry out a second assessment – costing the council an additional £10,725, excluding VAT.
During the debate on the Coyte Farm planning application, at the council's strategic planning committee in January, some councillors said the retail impact assessments were worthless, as they provided conflicting evidence and they were unsure which to trust.
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, criticised the council for the additional spend on the studies.
"Councillors can't pick and choose which assessments they like, and don't like, when taxpayers are footing the bill each time," he said.
"A healthy dose of transparency is urgently needed in this case."
Following a freedom of information request, the council revealed it spent £11,600, excluding VAT, on the original GVA assessment and an amended version of the report, which took into account planning decisions made after the first was completed. Both reports concluded the development at Coyte Farm would result in a diversion of trade from shops in the town centre of around 28 per cent.
Matt Morris, director of GVA, said the council had been using his consultancy firm since it became a unitary authority in 2009 and, to his knowledge, it had never previously sought a secondary assessment from an alternative firm after commissioning GVA.
The council defended its decision to withhold the original GVA report from the public.
"The retail impact study concerning the Coyte Farm planning application was undertaken by GVA for the council and was completed in May 2013," a council spokesman said.
"However, the report was not released pending the outcome of Chase and Partners' work.
"The reason for this was that the council did not want to drip feed information relating to this application into the public domain, but rather it wanted to present all of the work undertaken in relation to the retail impact of the proposed development to provide as full a picture as possible."
The council said the second report was commissioned to assist the authority in understanding the scale of the disparities between the applicant's retail impact assessment and the report undertaken by the council's consultant.
The spokesman added: "The council considered that this expense was justified as the application was significant and it wanted to ensure that councillors had sufficient information to reach a view on the potential retail impact from the proposed development."