Few companies will have been celebrating the coalition’s proposed ‘reform’ of the UK’s planning regulations as much as the ‘big four’ supermarkets, which are looking to increase their already overwhelming dominance of the food industry by building more and more stores across the country. Places like the Herefordshire market town of Ledbury are the frontline. Tesco, the biggest of the big, wants to build a huge development next to the motorway bypass just outside the town.
Local councillors are against it, the Conservative MP says he can’t give support, new research undermines the company’s employment claims, shop windows are plastered with ‘No’ posters and a lively campaign has already brought hundreds on to the streets. But armed with an increasingly ”pro-growth” planning law and a relentless public relations offensive, the company remains confident.
In this specially commissioned piece for Corporate Watch, Taimour Lay visits Herefordshire to find out exactly how Tesco plans to get its way.
And the survey says…
“I’m not filling those out anymore. We felt really used by what they did,” one shopper in the market town of Ledbury tells me, pointing at a Tesco ‘Have Your Say’ survey form. The questions seemed innocuous enough: “Would you like a more spacious Tesco store with a wider range of products?” “Yes. No. Unsure.” “Would you be interested in working at the new store?” “Yes. No. Unsure.” But for all the queries about space and jobs, nowhere on the A5 sheet did it ask directly about the company’s plan for a new, out-of-town supermarket, nor even mention its proposed location on the southern motorway bypass. So locals were surprised when Sophie Akokhia, Tesco corporate affairs manager for the West Midlands, told the press on 30th July, the day the planning application was first submitted, that from over 1,000 responses “50% of comments were in favour of the proposals”.
Ledbury does not, at first glance, look like easy ground for a Tesco public relations assault. Nestled behind the Malvern hills, 20 minutes’ train ride from Hereford, its 9,000 people are served by nearly 100 independent shops, connected to a complex ecology of local farmers and producers. Tourists flock to the main high street, The Homend. Unemployment is low. Community ties are strong.
On top of that, Ledbury already has a Tesco in the centre of town. And it’s not one of their smaller “Express” stores – it’s over 11,000 sq ft. That means 12 long aisles, stocking everything from Spanish olives to Disney DVDs. When it emerged in May this year that Tesco representatives were meeting with local councillors to prepare the way for a planning application for an out-of-town site to replace the current store (Tesco’s “one-on-one meetings” are ongoing, the company confirms), the reaction was one of shock: What would be the effect of a 33,000 sq ft superstore? And why did the company want to take parking and footfall out of the town and into no-man’s land?
You don’t have to travel far to understand why people are worried. The neighbouring town of Malvern used to have a thriving centre much like Ledbury’s, until a Morrison’s superstore opened on an ever-expanding retail development. Now, cars snake into its spacious grey car park all day long. In town, a decade later, only a few charity shops and estate agents remain. The centre has become the periphery.
“That’s what they want to do here,” says Rich Hadley, a leading figure in the Ledbury Opposes Tesco Superstore (LOTS) campaign. “Tesco already take a huge share of what’s bought here now and they want even more. There’s no need for a bigger store. It takes everything out of Ledbury.”
As shoppers enter the current town-centre store the Tesco display (entitled “Our Community”) on the expansion promises that a bigger store will “encourage more people to shop locally” and “closer to home”(though the site is almost a mile outside the town centre). It promises “lower emissions and less congestion” (though cars will be driving further and Tesco is seeking new custom from a wider catchment area). And it throws in a promise of transport links (only to the new store, mind) and a nod to the £14,000 it gave to Ledbury charities last year (judging by previous developments, the expansion is likely to take over £2 million out of the local economy).
Talking to Tesco shoppers and local shopkeepers on The Homend, I could not find a single person willing to speak in favour of the development – but voices have been speaking up online. One of the half-dozen regular posters on the Ledbury Approves Tesco Superstore (LATS) Facebook group, is Andrew Ellis, who works for Britannia Construction in Cheltenham, a company which has in the past secured contracts to help build Tesco stores and distribution centres. He declined to comment on the connection.
Sophie Akokhia told me that she was “unaware” there was a pro-Tesco campaign in Ledbury and said she had not had contact with them. She says that Tesco has no corporate policy governing its relationship with potential supporters in local disputes. Critics disagree: “Tesco motivates groups and local advocates to be supportive and employs people to engage. They recruit,” says Shane Brennan of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACE). “They call it ‘consultation’ but it’s a strategy.”
Tesco does not just rely on Facebook groups to get its message across. The Indigo public relations company has spent weeks running displays, workshops and market research for the new store in Ledbury – and this is before the full details of the plan are public. Tesco can talk in rosy generalities and tell critics to wait for the finalised planning application before passing judgement.
Reg Grimes, who helped lead the fight against Tesco for over a decade in Sheringham, Norfolk, says the marketing takes its toll: “Tesco never had much support here but over time, years and years, people get tired of saying no. Two or three people turned up using Facebook and letters to the press. And the general advertising too works in their favour. Tesco keep saying they’re cheaper and more convenient and in the end people believe them. It became harder when the local paper was carrying Tesco advertising, too.”
The misinformation campaign is what angers Caroline Handley, who has run a fruit and vegetable shop in Ledbury for 12 years: “We check all the prices. Our organic [produce] is cheaper than Tesco’s conventional [range]! But people believe what they’re told.”
David Waller, a local butcher, whose family have been Ledbury butchers for 35 years, is a realist about competition but says people need to realise what happens when town centres die: “I’m not against supermarkets. But they should keep it in town. There’s a market for them, sure… life isn’t fair, nor is business. All we want it a fair chance to compete.”
Chief among Tesco’s claims for the Ledbury expansion is the promise of employment: specifically, the creation of an “extra 75 jobs.” This is being pushed hard by the company and its supporters. The pro-Tesco campaign’s online supporters say opponents of the superstore are “middle-class” and out of touch with the economic reality.
But the numbers don’t add up. Tesco is reluctant to say how many of the 200 staff at the new store would be part-time, and has refused to disclose employment patterns at similarly-sized stores. But a Tesco manager at its 33,000 sq ft Belmont superstore in nearby Hereford admitted to me that, of its 315 staff, 52 are full-time and the rest work between three and 30 hours a week.
The vast majority of jobs in Ledbury’s current Tesco store are casual, low-skilled and low-paid. One of the workers, on £7.00 an hour for 10 hours a week, told me that “only one or two managers” of the current staff are full-time. “It’s silly, there are people here who are in every day but they’re still on part-time contracts,” he added. “We’ve been told we’d have to reapply for our jobs if the new place is built.”
The argument that there is no work around, implied or explicit in Tesco’s PR, isn’t quite true. The job centre in Ledbury has long since closed but young people in search of work often look to Hereford and Worcester. Over the county, unemployment is relatively low – 2,667 people in Herefordshire were claiming jobseeker’s allowance in July 2011 – 2.5% of the working age population and much lower than the national average. Nevertheless, the recession has helped Tesco, and the other supermarkets, sell the argument that their expansion generates desperately needed jobs.
The number of full-time jobs at Tesco and Sainsbury’s actually fell in 2009 and 2010, despite the two chains’ increasing the amount of sales space between them by 2.85 million sq ft. ‘New jobs’ in one place have simply been offset by losses elsewhere.
Tesco told me the “75 extra jobs” claim was likely to be an “underestimate”. But there are no guarantees. The plans for a new Tesco in Accrington promised 450 jobs. When it opened last year, there were only 191, with Tesco blaming the economic downturn.
Reg Grimes, of the Sheringham campaign, says the jobs promises were always hard to untangle: “There are figures in the planning application, but they’ll be total ‘man-hours’, not the jobs number, and once you start doing the maths, you realise it’s a lot less than they claimed.”
The threat to existing employment posed by a large Tesco development has been highlighted by new provisional research on the Ledbury ‘food web’ by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). Commissioned before the local superstore plans were revealed, CPRE’s study found that independent food outlets in the town were selling over £2 million worth of local produce per year.
“The [sample of] independent outlets we interviewed that sell local food support around 85 jobs (48 full time & 37 part time) in the town and an estimated 150 jobs (85 full-time and 65 part-time) if extrapolated across the sector,” the report’s provisional results read. “The suppliers we interviewed support over 40 jobs (30 full-time). Sector-wide local food suppliers may [support] close to 410 jobs. Altogether the local food web around Ledbury could be supporting over 560 jobs, with potential turnover in the food sector of over £30m.” All this will be put at risk.
“Local producers will suffer,” says James Bodenham, manager of another of Ledbury’s three independent butchers. “We source locally. Tesco claim to, but they need bigger scale. If the town centre goes, so do all the people who supply it.”
Indeed, previous research by the National Retail Planning Forum found that on average there is a net loss of 276 full-time jobs within a 15km zone around a new superstore, through the closure of smaller specialist food retailers and other small businesses. And it gets worse: the site Tesco wants already houses Ledbury Welding and Engineering, which currently employs 80 skilled workers making fuel tanks and has been an important part of the local economy since 1969. Tesco says it will “support” the company to find a new “local” site, but there is a growing feeling at the business that it is “more likely to close down or move to Hereford”.
If at first they don’t succeed…
Growth, development and jobs: Tesco’s claims, however disingenuous, are not just part of a PR battle to win local support. They have legal significance. In considering Tesco’s planning application, the decision-makers are forced by government guidance to take the company promises into account. Because of the changes made to planning law since 2009, the legal presumption already effectively lies in favour of saying ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. Despite the imbalance of resources between the sides, it is campaigners who must prove their case, not the company. The latest government plans will explicitly entrench this presumption. Tesco’s claims may be undermined by the Retail Impact Assessment currently in progress but, given that is being funded by Tesco, it is unlikely to hold the company’s plans back.
In Ledbury, the decision-makers are the 19 councillors who sit on the Herefordshire County Council Planning Committee. Only one of them is a Ledbury ward councillor and the rules mean he can’t vote on the application. Elected they may be but councillors make the decision constrained by their legal duties as defined by central government guidance. What looks ‘local’ is, in fact, driven by Westminster edict, which is why Tesco can remain confident of winning in Ledbury. Even a local referendum on a new town “plan” (envisaged by the government’s new Localism Bill), which explicitly rejected a new supermarket, would not amount to a moratorium.
“The town plan has to be consistent with the county plan, and the county plan has to comply with the national guidance,” says Kevin Singleton, Head of Strategic Planning at Herefordshire County Council. Singleton argues that the Localism Bill, which is being trumpeted as giving more power to communities over local decisions, will in fact give less. “The ‘freedom’ comes if a community wants to choose more ‘growth’, not less,” he adds.
The direction of national guidance has been clear: it wants supermarkets to expand. Even before the new planning law was drafted, Greg Clark, minister for Decentralisation and Cities, had provided written directions to councils last year to make decisions that reflect a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda. Those directions bite, according to Shane Brennan of the Association of Convenience Stores. “Many decisions against a planning application have been taken to appeal [to the Planning Inspectorate] and those written directions have been used by supermarkets to argue their case. The percentage of successful appeals has improved dramatically.”
And if Tesco loses, it can appeal or resubmit over and over again. The anticipated expense of defending an appeal can force councils to admit long-resisted applications. Local opposition often leads to an intensified PR effort, alongside greater promises of “community benefits” for the area. Politicians find it hard to keep saying no. Campaigns lose energy. In Sheringham, where Tesco fought for 14 years to get approval, the councillors voted 14 to 0 against the plans in 2007. Three years later, the company had a majority.
The Secretary of State has the power to review local approvals that may contravene central guidance – that is, stop supermarkets appealing their rejection. But in the last two and a half years, out of 146 out-of-town retail applications approved, he has chosen to review just one.
The guidance councils follow is contained in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which will be replaced by a new NPPF next year. The current law includes protections, from Town Centre First (TCF) to “sustainable development”, which should, in theory, provide the tool to turn down superstores. Those are being watered down or removed by the new draft. Asda, in particular, is reported to be lobbying hard, while Tesco’s political connections are as strong as ever. Already supermarkets no longer have to prove a “need” for the expansion; now they may be relieved of the obligation to show that a smaller scale can achieve the same aims.
Cutting the guidance from 1,000 pages to only 50 has been hailed by the government as making the law more accessible. In reality, where there’s ambiguity or silence, the companies get an easier ride and local Planning Committees have a weaker legal case for saying no.
“If you look at the history of Tesco’s expansion in the last 50 years,” says Brennan, “they have bought and built at times of recession. The protections are at their weakest now than they have been for a long time.”
Fighting on two fronts
Ledbury now finds itself in the middle of the “space race”. In 2010, an extraordinary 60% of all out-of-town retail developments approved were for Tesco, and 84% were for the ‘big four’ (Tesco, Asda, Sainbury’s and Morrisons). Since the general election, they have opened more than 400 new stores across the UK. By 2014, retail space operated by them is set to increase by 20%. The ‘big four’s’ expansion involves direct competition for sites across the country, with them often working to scupper each other’s plans and usually choosing to saturate areas beyond immediate profitability. But this competition turns an argument about whether to have a supermarket at all into a debate about which supermarket to choose.
The pattern is now familiar. After three months of tracking Tesco’s proposals, Sainbury’s announced on 18th August that it wanted to build an even bigger superstore directly opposite the proposed Tesco site. It wants to “improve” on the Tesco plan, offering “220 full and part-time jobs”. Weeks after local Conservative MP Bill Wiggin expressed disappointment that Tesco’s proposals, which he said he couldn’t support, hadn’t included provision for a new petrol station, the new Sainsbury’s plan offered just that. The Section 106 agreement (“community benefits”) will become a competition, from direct payments to local charities to support for local authority spending and infrastructure projects. All at a time when budgets are being cut.
The same thing happened in Sheringham. The choice had been between Tesco and no supermarket development. Then Waitrose entered the fray and it became a choice between the two supermarkets. “The No message got lost as the supermarkets fought to persuade people,” says Grimes.
Rich Hadley in Ledbury admits things are about to get harder but was heartened by a protest that LOTS called on 18th August that drew over 100 people to the town centre. “This is a clarion call for people to wake up to the threat,” he says. “There’s no going back once they’ve built it. Tesco and Sainsbury’s should pause to listen to the genuine concerns and aspirations of the communities they purport to serve.”
 And the PR companies continue their work after the battle has been won. In a neat piece of casuistry, Simon Tiernan, of Portland Communications, who has given “advice” to Tesco, wrote last month in the Guardian that the real “danger is that the vocal, well-organised minority will claim to speak for the community” against supermarket expansion, going on to argue that the campaign in Sheringham “overplayed their hand and called a public vote” in which “local people in their hundreds made clear they wanted the same convenient, good value shopping that consumers in towns up and down the country already enjoyed.”
In fact, in the parish poll in 2010, in which less than half the 6,000 eligible voters turned out, more than half voted against Tesco. One-fifth voted against having any supermarket at all, and just under half voted for Waitrose over Tesco. So, out of the whole community, less than a quarter voted for Tesco. A “win” – after a decade of lobbying and hard-sell.
 Campaign To Protect Rural England, Draft statistics from Mapping Local Food Webs, Ledbury study, 2009. Mapping Local Food Webs is part of the Making Local Food Work Programme funded by Big Lottery.
 Porter and Rastrick (1998) ‘The impact of out of centre food superstores on local retail employment’ The National Retail Planning Forum.
In a recent case Tesco asked an RIA to be re-written after they disagreed with the figures. In Ledbury’s case, Herefordshire council confirmed that, rather than conducting their own assessment, they will simply evaluate the data presented to them by the Tesco funded RIA.
 Neighbourhood plans won’t be allowed to be ”anti-growth”. The Government published “A plain English Guide to the Localism Bill” in June. The section on Neighbourhood Planning says: “Provided a neighbourhood development plan is in line with national planning policy… and with other legal requirements, local people will be able to vote on it in a referendum”, suggesting a local plan would have to be consistent with National Policy before a referendum could be held.