COUNCILLORS say they felt “blackmailed” after being presented with a choice of allowing a seven-screen cinema in Catterick Garrison or jeopardising £2bn worth of investment in the town.

Richmondshire district councillors faced an agonising decision on Tuesday (March 5), as they considered plans to allow a cinema and three restaurants to be built as part of an entire town centre development.

They heard they would have to choose whether to allow the seven screen complex to be built – which would almost certainly prove devastating to the district’s other cinemas - or block it and potentially jeopardise any hopes of a new town centre for Catterick Garrison and the 700 jobs it is projected to provide.

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Chairman of the planning committee, Jane Parlour, said the decision facing councillors was one of the “most difficult, unpleasant decisions” she had ever had to make in 19 years on the committee.

Previous proposals for the site, for a five screen cinema for the town, had been approved. But shortly after permission was granted, the operator pulled out and the only remaining business interested in running a cinema in Catterick Garrison wanted seven screens.

Geoff Prince, speaking on behlaf of the developers, said without the cinema, the other high street chains that expressed interest in having a store in the new centre would almost certainly walk away.

He added: “Members should be under no illusion that if the application is refused, then the town centre scheme will collapse.

“This will not only undermine the core strategy, but it will be a major set-back to the wider business community, local job seekers, the MOD’s aspirations to develop a Garrison town with modern amenities for its soldiers and its families and also for the Garrison town to be properly integrated into the social and economic fabric of Richmondshire.”

Several councillors said they felt they were being blackmailed into allowing the cinema, despite grave reservations about the consequences on the rest of the town.

Councillors Stuart Parsons, who spoke as an objector, said “nobody had a problem” with a five-screen cinema, but seven screens would spell disaster for smaller cinemas in Leyburn, Ripon, Northallerton, Thirsk and The Station Cinema in Richmond.

He said: “So for two screen and 208 extra seats we will win or lose £2bn of investment? It’s a house of cards, none of it stacks up. If it’s dependent on 208 seats then this development cannot survive.”

The meeting was packed with members of the public, many of whom were concerned at the effect on The Station Cinema.

Director of The Station, Robert Younger queried the figures provided by the developers, that the Catterick cinema would serve a catchment area of 91,000 residents. He said the Station, two miles away from the proposed development, considered its catchment to be 25,000 to 30,000.

He said the development was “supposed to be complementary to nearby businesses, not potentially fatal” and would “dominate the entire market”.

Council leader John Blackie said they had a responsibility for the economic development of the entire district and they had already bent over backwards to secure grants and funding for The Station Cinema. He said: “There’s a young centre of population there [Catterick Garrison] and frankly over the years we’ve served up poor fare for them.”

Councillors initially voted against the planning officer’s recommendation that the scheme was approved and refused permission by seven votes to six.

Due to the narrow vote, they voted instead to defer the plans for another month and give the cinema operator a chance to address the concerns.