THE landscape of Huntingdon town centre could be transformed in just three or four years as dozens of new shops are built.

THE landscape of Huntingdon town centre could be transformed in just three or four years as dozens of new shops are built.

Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has submitted a planning application for a new, 36 per cent bigger store off George Street to the west of the ring road.

The application includes a replacement petrol station and under-store car parking, with access to the site from a new link road soon to be built between the railway station and Ermine Street.

In a parallel move Sainsbury’s has deposited a second application to turn its present store in St Germain Street into three separate, but smaller, shops and to replace its petrol filling station with two floors of additional shopping.

Huntingdonshire District Council has added its own impetus to the town centre re-vamp with a planning application for a £3million four-tier multi-storey car park that would add 313 short-stay car parking spaces to the number now available in this part of town.

Combined with what planners hope will be – at last – an acceptable design from Churchmanor Estates to replace the Chequers Court block that used to house the Inland Revenue and a lot of unused courtyard space.

Although planners were unhappy with a design for 11 new shops that the developers exhibited in the summer, Churchmanor is believed to be close to an application the planners can recommend to councillors.

If all these applications went through next year, they and several other new retail outlets could be open to a steadily-expanding shopping public in three or four years’ time, according to the district council’s planning chief Steve Ingram.

The council has been desperate for years to encourage residents to spend their money in shops in the district, rather than travel to larger centres, such as Cambridge, Peterborough and Bedford.

Even within Huntingdon, they know from research commissioned from expert consultants that Tesco in Abbots Ripton Road is massively ‘over-trading’ and keeping people out of the town centre.

However, Tesco will also want a piece of the town centre action. The supermarket leader owns land where Silent Channel used to manufacture – land that will be bisected by the new link road – where it, too, wants to open a new store, though no planning application has yet been submitted.

Tesco may be awaiting a planning inspector’s report – now expected early next year – in to HDC’s plans for what it calls ‘Huntingdon West’ – the area between the ring road and the railway, together with Hinchingbrooke Park.

At a public inquiry in late July Tesco made clear its ambition to return to the town centre, rather than let Sainsbury’s have everything its own way.

And they may not be the only supermarkets interested in town centre re-development. Lidl has an application in for a site just north of the Iron Bridge on Ermine Street, and planners will be sympathetic to some ‘discount’ presence in the town. Waitrose is believed to have ambitions to enlarge its up-market offering, but Churchmanor director Howard White would not comment on whether he had been talking to the John Lewis grocery arm.

He did confirm, however, that, if a meeting with HDC planners in the next couple of weeks went well, a planning application for Chequers Court could be expected early in the New Year. The design shown in the summer had been amended to concentrate on land Churchmanor actually owned, he said.

The planners are clearly excited by the developments and believe they could transform the Huntingdon shopping experience, with bigger and better shops drawing people away from cities and out-of-town retail parks.

“Things are happening, and it could all be delivered in three to four years,” Mr Ingram said. “The multi-storey car park will happen very quickly: the money is in the budget.

“I’m also confident that there will be more demand for people to shop locally as petrol prices go even further through the roof,” he added.