FEARS raised by Labour councillor Mike Roberts that Aldershot and Farnborough town centres have been left standing by the resurgence of Basingstoke have stirred up a hornets' nest.
High-profile Tory rival Cllr David Clifford was first to take a potshot, accusing Cllr Roberts of playing politics with people's lives.
In a stinging response, Cllr Clifford said: "We get a bit sick of Mike Roberts always talking down the town centre. He just hates the fact that things are going well because Labour are not in control. It's petty and inaccurate.
"When Mike was chairman we supported him on the town centre. There are some things that we should all be united on and supporting our own traders is one of them.
"You don't play politics with the town centre. We never did when we were in opposition. I challenge Mike Roberts to find anything I said that went against the town centre.
"If he thinks Aldershot is so bad then why doesn't he go off to Basingstoke with its new centre, because he surely wouldn't be missed."
Tory colleague Cllr Eddie Poole pitched in with: "I really don't understand someone who talks their own town down. We are all aware of our shortcomings, but we don't highlight them when we go for a job interview!
"If Mike continues to talk the town down then I can only imagine that the electorate will remember that come election time."
Cllr Poole had some sympathy with Cllr Roberts' frustration with the amount of time progress was taking, but added: "Things take as long as they take."
Cllr Roberts had sparked the debate days earlier when, having visited the massive new Festival Place complex in Basingstoke, he said Aldershot and Farnborough had been allowed to slide.
He referred back to 1994 and the ‘For Sale' signs which littered Aldershot's town centre — and suggested those days could be returning. He said there had been a "lack of dynamics" in town centre planning.
His comments were immediately challenged by Rushmoor Council's chief executive Andrew Lloyd, who commented: "If Mike is suggesting we have taken our eyes off the ball, I totally refute that."
Cllr Roberts put up a spirited defence of his position on Friday.
He said: "I'm not surprised by the comments of some people. But it's not about politics, it's about the issues. I didn't spend five years developing the future of Aldershot to see the whole thing now become frayed at the edges. It was never a five-year plan — it was at least ten.
"The comments I made the other day were a wake-up call. We don't have a great track record of delivery and meanwhile the rest of the world is getting on with its business."
Aldershot's town centre manager Jenny Rawlings said it was important to be aware of what neighbouring centres are doing, but not fearful.
She said: "Any debate on the future of Aldershot is always welcome — peoples' views must be shared. The trouble is that people always look at what has not happened, rather than what has been achieved.
"As soon as the health centre has been moved to the top of Hospital Hill you will see the Westgate centre come alive.
"Don't be disheartened by Festival Place. When WestQuay opened at Southampton that was supposed to be disastrous for us, and then when Gunwharf opened at Portsmouth, but they weren't."
Ms Rawlings said it was imperative to attract a major anchor store for Aldershot in the High Street scheme and several had shown an interest. The key would be to make enough space available.
A giant name would expect between 10,000 and 40,000 sq ft of retail space, but the most available at present is 5,000 sq ft — something Ms Rawlings hopes will change under the latest plans.
However Cllr Roberts did receive support from Peter Newman of Fingz Fashions clothing shop in Queens-mead, Farnborough.
Mr Newman said neither Farnborough nor Aldershot are in a position to compete, adding: "As far as Farnborough is concerned, it is already at rock bottom.
"All the established businesses have gone. The redevelopment, instead of expanding the town and offering a competitive shopping experience, slashes over 70 retail units to make way for a supermarket that already exists in the town.
"Basingstoke has more than 160 new shops. Do Sainsbury's really believe that moving a couple of hundred yards from their current location is going to improve trade?
"As yet we have heard nothing of the new stores flocking to Farnborough, only the relocation of those shops that are left here. In 1996 there were five empty units in Queensmead, right now there are five left. Is that progress?
"The whole plan is totally unrealistic. After four years and the destruction of the town centre, all there is to show for it is the loss of over 70 businesses. The plan has taken four years to commence. You could build a whole town in that time."