SOUTHWOLD’S unique character could be lost if national chains are allowed to move into the town unchallenged, it was claimed this week.

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The Southwold Chamber of Trade has called on councillors to take legal action if companies set up shop without adhering to local planning rules.

In a letter to Southwold Town Council and Waveney District Council, the chamber’s chairman Guy Mitchell calls for action to protect the town’s diverse range of shops amid growing speculation that Costa Coffee is poised to take over the store at 70 High Street.

It came as similar fears were raised this week by town councillors as they considered a planning application for fashion store Aubin & Wills, just weeks before the work is due to start.

Councillors backed the store’s request to make changes for its new store at 94 High Street, but the mayor of Southwold John Windell expressed his concern at planning applications “coming in too late for the council to have a meaningful part in the decision”.

Urging planners to take firm action against national chains that breached planning rules, Mr Mitchell has written to Waveney and the town council. He says: “The committee (of the chamber) is of the view that, for the business community to be successful, it is vital that the High Street is able to offer a diverse range of shops and services to both visitors and residents.

“We are therefore extremely concerned to hear rumours regarding the imminent arrival of Costa Coffee and their plans to open on the High Street. “We are led to believe that 70 High Street is likely to become a branch of Costa. As you are aware, if this is the case, a change of use from Use Class A1 (shops) to Use Class A3 (food and drink) will be required.

“This has not yet been applied for.”

Mr Mitchell goes on to cite recent cases in Bristol, Westbury-on-Trym and Cambridge where, he says, Costa Coffee has gone ahead and implemented changes to buildings without waiting for planning permission.

He adds: “The Chamber of Trade would like Southwold Town Council’s assurance that, should Costa attempt to change the use of the property without appropriate consent having been obtained, the council will take enforcement action.”

Rumours concerning the arrival of Costa Coffee took a new twist in February when the developer used by the coffee chain, WH Smiths and Boots submitted a planning application for the rebuilding of first floor rear extension to form a studio flat at 70 High Street. It has since been approved by Waveney.

But it is understood that Costa Coffee would have to file a “change of use” planning application before being allowed to operate the premises as a café.

On Tuesday night, plans lodged by Aubin & Wills for listed building consent, internal alterations, and the installation of signs at 94 High Street were backed by members of Southwold Town Council meeting.

Ian Bradbury said: “This is a big one that I have had to look at very carefully indeed. It is one of those things that I am not entirely happy with. Work has got to start in two weeks and we don’t have a planning application to agree to.

“That said, work there is looking to be done well. We have said that we will recommend to agree with the condition that their sign be anchored at the bottom because the winds down the high street can be considerable at times and people working on the store took that on board.”

However, the mayor of Southwold John Windell said he was becoming increasingly worried about the time the council was being given to consider some planning applications. He said: “We are very concerned at planning applications coming in too late for the town council to have a meaningful part in the decision.

“With the WH Smith planning application, it came in on the Monday and the shop opened on the Thursday. That highlights the concern.

“I think people may not understand that we can only make recommendations to Waveney planners. We are not making the final decision on planning applications and that is a problem for us.

John Perkins of the Southwold and Reydon Society told The Journal he believed national chains would undermine the Southwold’s Town Plan if they were allowed to open stores without more rigorous control.

He said: “There is a huge potential threat to the high street and it makes a mockery of the town plan. The point of a town plan is that we have some control over our own town, but at the moment we have no control over what happens.

“If something is not done to stop national chains coming without challenge, we will end up like any other high street.”

Aubin & Wills’s application will now go before Waveney planners before a final decision is made.

The Journal tried on several occasions to contact Costa Coffee but a company spokesman was not available for comment.

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