A two-day consultation on food hall plans was held in Ludlow at the Assembly Rooms before the weekend and members of the town's chamber of commerce went along to see what is on the drawing board.
Formal plans for the site along Sheet Road, east of the A49, have yet to be submitted to Shropshire Council but chamber members weren't impressed by the potential impact on the town's food businesses.
At the weekend Ludlow featured at number one in a national newspaper article '10 of Britain’s best independent high streets'. But campaigners fear this hard won status would be put at risk.
Vicki Orttewell, who chairs the Chamber of Commerce and is the owner of clothing, jewellery and accessories business Eclectica, went to last week’s public consultation hosted by Marks and Spencer and expressed her concerns.
"I expressed my concern about a number of things including taking footfall away from an already quiet town centre, the possibility of a precedent being set for other large multiples to move to the site in that area and longer-term retail park possibility," she said.
She is also worried that local suppliers would not be used by the brand.
"We are rather surprised that that M&S should think that this is a good idea, especially after the opening of a large Sainsbury's on the outskirts of town less than a year ago, which doesn’t appear to be that busy.
"Also what with the rising food costs and other strains on the household purse projected for the next two years, it seems rather brave or possibly foolish."
The chamber is worried that Ludlow town centre will gradually erode over time due to a constant barrage of out-of-town development that could attract footfall away from the town with free parking.
"The reason people love Ludlow is because it still has a busy high street with a multitude of independent shops. If we lose our food shops, we will lose daily footfall, which will have a negative impact on clothes, jewellery, gift shops and cafes," she said.
Tish Dockerty, a business owner and manager of Ludlow Local Produce Market and committee member of Ludlow Chamber of Commerce, added that the group's initial thoughts are that "a new M&S Foodhall on the outskirts of town would be in direct competition to Ludlow’s busy local food scene.
"M&S’s customer base is very similar to those that shop in our local butchers, bakers and specialist food shops, producers and markets, than any other large supermarket."
Ludlow Chamber of Commerce has more than 100 paid up businesses members, most small independent businesses in town.
Tish said: "We have championed our high street for years, I first did a shopping guide for the town back in 2006, since then we have developed a full guide for the town with the Ludlow Guide which is now an online website, social media campaign and annual printed guide for visitors."
In response a spokesman for M&S said the company has received an overwhelmingly positive feedback from the local community at recent public consultation events.
"We are hoping to open a brand new M&S Foodhall in Ludlow, offering local customers a wide range of great quality, trusted value M&S Food products.
"We’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the local community at our recent public consultation events with many residents telling us how excited they are by the proposals."
The spokesman added that the "significant investment" will make a positive contribution to the local economy.
"This significant investment in the local area will make a positive contribution to the local economy, with the scheme expected to unlock employment opportunities for up to 70 people and to provide a positive start to an allocated employment site which has sat undeveloped for the last seven years.
“We play an important role in the communities we serve, helping to attract shoppers to local areas across the country and we believe that a new M&S Foodhall will enhance the existing, vibrant retail offer in Ludlow. We look forward to continuing our engagement with the local community.”
Comments will be closed on December 9 and can be made at foodhallconsultationludlow.co.uk/.
Once any planning application is lodged it will be subject to another formal consultation.