A MULTI-MILLION pound out-of-town shopping scheme, set to create 600 new jobs, has been approved by Bolton planners. The plan will now go to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott for rubber stamping. Many of Bolton Council's planning committee members remained unconvinced that the Tonge Valley retail and leisure designer village would rob the town centre of shoppers.

As reported in Wednesay's BEN, planning officers had recommended the scheme to be refused - alongside another £20 million factory outlet development for Middlebrook.

Officers fear it will have an impact on Bolton town centre jobs, although both schemes could create work for more than 800 people.

Chairman of the planning control sub-committee, Cllr Jack Foster, yesterday voted against accepting the plan and urged members to be "very cautious" to avoid "back-stabbing" Bolton's major town centre stores.

As many members voiced their approval for the £35 million scheme, including council leader Bob Howarth, Cllr Foster said: "I would advise you to be very cautious - it will be a real change in our policy. We have made this town a jewel in the crown. A lot of people have invested and supported us to make the town centre what it is today. It is like stabbing them in the back. They have supported us through the years. If any of those shops close, Bolton will be like a ghost town."

Councillors hinted that the Town Centre Partnership had not done its research accurately enough - failing to find out how many Bolton shoppers commute to other out-of-town shopping development such as Cheshire Oaks and Boundary Mill.

The Tonge Valley application, from Chester-based leisure developers THI, would involve 120,000 square feet of shopping and become phase two of the development.

Cllr Guy Harkin opened the debate and said that it was a very difficult decision.

Cllr Harkin argued: " There would be a great danger that if we didn't accept this application that it would be built elsewhere. We can't miss this opportunity." Labour leader Cllr Howarth echoed this sentiment alongside Cllr John Walsh who said: "I welcome it. The development is an interesting and exciting one."

Cllr Laurie Williamson opposed the bid, saying that there needed to be clear guidance from the Government about out-of-town shopping schemes.

Cllr Pauline Spencer said that it was ironic that Bolton was applying to become a city "when in the end it seems to be afraid of growth".

Councillors voted 15-7 in favour of the scheme which will now go to Mr Prescott, Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, for final rubber stamping.

Today Mr Neil Russmann, store director of town centre Whitakers and chairman of Bolton town centre partnership, said: "If the application is called in to the Secretary of State, my own company will be making representations at the very highest level. I believe that this decision goes against all Government guidelines on out of town shopping developments. I think it is a great shame that it has been approved and I hope that it is called in."

He refuted the claim that 600 new jobs would be created, saying that these would be replacing jobs which could be lost in the town centre. He added: "I do believe that this will be as bad for the town centre as the Trafford Centre."

He said that an independent study had already shown that Bolton's shopping market had reached "saturation point".

A decision on the £20 million Middlebrook factory outlet application which would create 200 jobs has been deferred. Planners agreed to a site visit and presentation from developers, Orbit, before making a decision.

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