A COUNCILLOR fears that a retail giant's plan to open a store at the Middlebrook Retail Park would threaten the future of small businesses in Horwich town centre.

Cllr Bob Ronson has accused catalogue retailer Argos of attempting to force the scrapping of planning policies designed to protect small local traders.

Argos is seeking to alter conditions imposed at the retail park banning the sale of toys, fashion accessories, books, jewellery, clothing and shoes.

The measures were introduced six years ago at the time Middlebrook was being planned in order to protect the viability of nearby Horwich town centre.

Four years ago the Horwich Chamber of Trade, which has now ceased to exist, complained that Asda and Boots at the out-of-town site were selling clothing and toys, but Bolton Council decided not to take any action as the items were not the stores' primary trade and therefore judged planning permission had not been breached.

Now Argos wants to open in the Middlebrook unit currently occupied by electrical goods retailer Powerhouse and has applied for planning permission enabling it to sell toys, accessories, books and jewellery.

Cllr Ronson says the plan must not be approved as it would mean a further weakening in the protection for small local businesses, some of which have already been affected by the fact that large retailers are at Middlebrook.

Cllr Ronson, who represents Horwich on Bolton Council, said: "I feel a bit like the little boy in the Dutch tale standing with my finger in the dyke.

"Some of the big stores can sell at cheaper prices than the smaller outlets can actually buy in at."

He claims large businesses pushing to alter planning conditions at Middlebrook need to be opposed, adding: "It is not just driving a coach and horses through planning policy, it is putting a motorway through."

Both Horwich Town Council and Bolton and District Civic Trust have objected to the proposal. The town council believes it would damage the vitality of Horwich shops.

But Argos says the outlet will have no effect on other shopping areas, claiming that the goods make up only 22per cent of items they sell. In a statement, the retailer added that other local authorities had given the firm permission to sell the goods from retail parks and that an Argos presence at Middlebrook would lead to new investment and jobs in Bolton.

Council officials have recommended the application be approved with the condition that clothes and shoes are not sold and the other items are only to be sold by a catalogue retailer from the unit.

Councillors will debate the issue on Thursday.