Sainsburys, The Elgiva and Library
The 1990s was a busy time for the Chesham Society. While it was embroiled in the controversy over plans to extend St Mary’s Church, a second major issue came to the fore – the proposed redevelopment of Sainsbury’s supermarket.
Sainsbury’s was originally a relatively modest presence on the High Street that had been purpose-built in the 1960s with a small car park at the rear. By the ’90s it had been upstaged by both the new Waitrose and by the huge Tesco in Old Amersham. In May 1995 The Bucks Examiner carried a report of a meeting at the County Council about Sainsbury’s plan to expand onto the neighbouring vacant site, formerly the UBM builder’s merchants yard. The outline scheme was presented to the Town Council on 24 May.
The following month the Society made contact with Gerald Knight Associates who was acting as PR consultants for Sainsbury’s. Mr Knight, a resident of Amersham, apparently had the idea himself because he felt that the north end of Chesham High Street was the ‘forgotten end of town’ and needed rejuvenating.
At a Chesham Society members’ meeting he described the proposed scheme in very broad terms but it was immediately clear that the Town Centre would be transformed. The existing library would be built over the new store; the Town Council’s offices and Council Chamber would be housed in a brand new building; a new, larger theatre was being considered at Watermeadow; and the frontage of the listed buildings on the High Street would be renovated.
In July a brochure was widely circulated in the Town, which included a questionnaire and a stamped self-addressed envelope, and an exhibition was held at 122 High Street. The Society responded at length. In general it found the scheme very exciting though it wanted access to the new store direct from the High Street, felt that the existing library building was of sufficiently high quality to merit retention, and while it welcomed a new theatre, it was reckoned that it deserved a more centralized location.
The Society was also concerned that enough parking was being planned for, but at the same time it did not want to see the whole of the west side of the Town as a sequence of car parks. A delicate balancing act was clearly needed.
By February 1996 plans were firming up with the theatre at Watermeadow and with both the library and Town Council located to the Catlings site between the High Street and St Mary’s Way. However as the year progressed it became clear that there was a funding gap – Sainsbury’s always accepted its obligation to pay for the facilities that had to be relocated but it was unwilling to pay for improvements in provision to those facilities (such as a library that was 40 per cent larger than before). The funding gap was quantified at £1.3 million.
Prior to Sainsbury’s issuing revised, less costly proposals, the Society had a meeting with Gerald Knight Associates to put us in the picture. In short the existing Library would be retained and a small amount of its land would be sold to fund improvements to it; the Elgiva Theatre would be relocated to Albany Car Park; and only the new Town Hall would be built on the Catling’s site.
The Society was happy with these revised proposals, particularly in that the market, which had been trading from the Albany Car Park for many years, was to be permanently relocated to the High Street, a suggestion the we had made years ago.
The Society had never been happy with the Elgiva being located at Watermeadow, and had said so. It still insisted that direct access to the new store from the High Street was essential and we wanted the design of the Town Hall to be of a high standard, with a pitched roof and brick facade, and the Society eventually got its way. Planning permission was given to the revised scheme and what we see today – superstore, theatre, car parks, Town Hall, rebuilt High Street shops – were completed to an amazingly tight schedule to minimise disruption.
The Sainsbury’s redevelopment, and all that has flowed from it, has had a major impact on the Town Centre and ‘tidied-up’ almost all the loose ends that remained following the widening of St Mary’s Way a decade earlier.