Next chief attacks ‘anti-growth’ culture that’s choking the UK

LORD Wolfson, the chief executive of Britain’s second biggest clothing retailer Next, has warned of a “profoundly anti-growth culture” pervading British institutional life.

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The Tory peer, who fought and won a battle with town planners in Sheffield, said local government across the country must embrace change and help usher in a new wave of shopping centres, housing development and road building to ensure economic recovery.

Speaking at an event in the city, he told an audience of business and civic leaders that Sheffield has the opportunity to create one of the leading commercial cities of England.

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“My message to Sheffield is the potential is there, but it has got to be done right. Doing things right means giving people what they want,” Lord Wolfson said.

In respect of shopping centres, he said: “They want access. They want parking. They want a covered area. They want it to be safe.”

Developers must be allowed to build the size of units that hold the ranges retailers have to offer today, added the businessman.

“What is really needed in our whole approach to the economy is a little dose of optimism, a belief that in our age we can build something that was better than what was there before,” Lord Wolfson said.

“I don’t want to build ugly hideous shops, I want to build beautiful shops that people want to go and buy coffee and sit down and buy three sofas.”

He said “a cross-party allegiance of naysayers” understand the idea of wealth destruction with the closure of a shop and the resulting loss of jobs, but the same people fail to grasp the concept that opening a shop creates wealth, he added.

The same approach applies to roads, he said, which means that commuters are stuck in the same traffic jams every day of their working lives.

Lord Wolfson described housing as “probably the most profoundly depressing area of anti-growth culture” and said planning authorities must allow developments where people want to live, with the number of bedrooms that they want and the car parking that they need.

“They can’t constrain our country with rules that force housebuilders to build houses that they can’t sell,” he added.

Lord Wolfson was speaking at the annual president’s dinner of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce in Cutlers Hall.

His company wanted to develop a £10m home and garden store at Meadowhall, but the council rejected the application for planning permission on the grounds of harm to city centre trade.

The retailer won after appealing to the Government planning inspector.

Lord Wolfson told the audience: “I don’t want to talk about it in a gloating or punishing way.

“I think that lessons have been learned and the city council will go on to create a great city centre.

“But I think what happened in Sheffield with Next is indicative of what is happening with businesses up and down the country.”

John Mothersole, chief executive of the council, met the retail boss for breakfast yesterday and said there had been a “break-up to make-up” moment.

He told the Yorkshire Post that Lord Wolfson’s anti-growth comments were “overstated” but serve as a useful reminder for the public sector at large to be as pro-growth as possible. He said Sheffield council is pro-growth; it is using European funds under its control to support a £120m office development in the city.

Meanwhile, the council will return to the market to find a new partner for its stalled Sevenstone retail quarter scheme after parting company with developer Hammerson earlier this year.

Mr Mothersole discussed the council’s plans for the city centre with Lord Wolfson yesterday morning and said he received a “very positive and supportive reaction”.

In his speech, Lord Wolfson said the new Next store at the Trinity Leeds development will take £15m, compared to the £1.5m at the Sheffield city centre store. He dismissed the argument that the lower take was due to out-of-town competition from Meadowhall. The Next store with the biggest turnover is at the Arndale centre in Manchester; the second biggest is at the nearby out-of-town Trafford centre.

Lord Wolfson said: “No-one ever built a great economy on protectionism. It never works.”

He added: “We will do so much better than to have some sort of monolithic plan that we must always stick to that lacks innovation, anticipation and cannot see the way the world is going to go and can never harness the full potential of the collective intelligence of our economy.”

Jon Stewart, president of the chamber, described the speech as “challenging and optimistic”.

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