The Nimbys have got competition. From Scotland’s Western Isles to the market towns of Wiltshire, action groups are clamouring for the supermarkets to come to their towns - rather than not. And they mean business
The battle lines have been drawn. Across the UK, pressure groups - like the one above in Sheringham, Norfolk - are getting organised and standing up against the all too familiar not-in-my-back-yard mentality of anti-supermarket lobbyists. They’re calling for supermarkets to come to their towns.
So who are these Imbys (as they shall henceforth be known)? How are they garnering support? And how much influence can they really hope to have on the planning process?
Their counterparts, the Nimbys, either cast themselves as the final bulwark against the worst excesses of capitalism or protectors of a more wholesome, by-gone era. Conversely, this new breed of pro-supermarket campaigners has far more practical motives. They’re tired of the long drive to far-off supermarkets for their weekly shops and the scant choice, high prices, long queues, inadequate parking and short opening hours of existing local stores. They want change, and they’re mobilising on social media and using changes to planning legislation to help get what they want - to good effect in Sheringham.
“The headlines were that Sheringham was against Tesco - that just didn’t feel right. Suddenly people took on the fight”
For 14 years, the question of whether the town - served by an East of England Co-op and more recently a Sainsbury’s Local - needed a larger supermarket divided this seaside community. The antis fought hard, campaigning to ‘keep Sheringham special’ and objecting to plans from Waitrose and Tesco on the grounds that a supermarket in Sheringham would detract from the town’s character, kill local businesses and cause traffic chaos.
This was a vocal minority, says Jono Read, who in 2007 set up a Facebook page to mobilise support for a supermarket coming to town after a parish poll revealed 82% support for such a development. “The headlines were always that Sheringham was against Tesco - that just didn’t feel right,” says Read.”I wanted to see what the strength of feeling was. Suddenly it felt like people were taking on the fight and coming together.”
In 2010 planners finally gave the green light for a Tesco to be built on the edge of Sheringham. With a sales area of just under 4,000 sq ft, the store is about 25% smaller than the one Tesco had previously wanted to build. Nevertheless, the Imbys are happy. “The plans look great,” says Read. “We want Tesco because local people need jobs and good value shopping.”
The web - particularly Facebook - is playing a crucial role in pro-supermarket campaigns around the country. On the Isle of Skye, a group set up to support Tesco’s application to build a 30,000 sq ft store in the village of Portree has won the support of nearly 2,000 followers on Facebook. Tesco’s plans for the island will go to public consultation in October. For Janet Gillies, islander and co-founder of the pro-Tesco group, the development will help make Skye a little less isolated.
“There are days in the summer when you can’t get basics like milk and bread in the three Co-ops [operated by the Co-operative Group] on the Isle of Skye,” she says. “I can go to the Inverness Tesco [a five-hour roundtrip] and spend £120 and the trolley is full. If I spend £120 in Co-op, it won’t even last the week. Even when you’re spending £50 on fuel, it’s still cheaper to go to Inverness. We need a supermarket.”
“There are days when you can’t get basics like bread or milk on the Isle of Skye. We need a supermarket”
Not everyone’s as keen on the idea of Tesco arriving on Skye as Gillies and her supporters, though. There have been grumblings amongst some of the island’s shopkeepers, admits Gillies, but as yet no groups have sprung up to argue against a Tesco on the island. “Their main argument is that a Tesco would take away from existing businesses,” she adds. “But the shops on Skye were already closing through no fault of Tesco.”
Elsewhere, anti-supermarket groups have been far more organised. And vocal. Last April, protests against the opening of a Tesco Express in Stokes Croft, Bristol, by a group claiming to have 93% support from local people (falsely - protestors had only polled 500 of the community of Stokes Croft and St Pauls, which Bristol City Council says numbers 6,000) descended into riots.
The two sides are also entrenched in the Wiltshire market town of Malmesbury, where Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have both submitted development plans. The town is currently served by two small Co-ops (Co-operative Group) and many locals say greater choice is needed to sustain Malmesbury’s growing population. Others say the development will sound the death knell for the town, clogging its streets and killing off local businesses.
Again, these voices of dissent appear to be in the minority. An online poll on Wiltshire councillor Simon Killane’s website revealed 72% support for a supermarket of some description to be built on the edge of town - 37.4% favoured Waitrose’s application to build an 18,000 sq ft store, 26.9% supported Sainsbury’s plans to build a 30,000 sq ft store and petrol station and 7.3% agreed with both proposals.
Vocal and local
“This vocal minority tends to be very local, living near the town centre,” says Killane. “They tend to be very well off and have concerns because a supermarket would directly affect them. Many more, particularly old people living in rural areas, would prefer to go into a supermarket with a car park rather than go into some quirky old town centre.”
Of course, large retailers and their developers need to prove that a new development will benefit more than just their bottom lines if any planning application, whether it is supported by local people or not, is to be successful. Apart from the jobs such new supermarkets can bring (Tesco says it will create 200 on Skye and 150 in Sheringham, and Sainsbury’s and Waitrose say they will bring 200 and 140 new jobs to Malmesbury respectively) developers are often required by law - under Section 106 agreements - to help fund civic projects related to their developments.
“The new legal process gives a real opportunity for locals to influence how their towns are planned”
Mike Carpenter, head of planning, Bidwells
”These are agreements between the applicants and an authority,” explains Mike Carpenter, head of planning at the consultancy Bidwells. “It used to be guidance but now it is law that payments or contributions made to an authority have to be ‘fairly or reasonably’ related to a development. These agreements are often elements that integrate a development into a local area, things like improving links between a store and a town centre or providing car parking open to the public.”
In Malmesbury, both Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have made several amendments to their plans - including the addition of a pedestrian walkway into the town centre, new pavements and a new roundabout to improve road safety. In Sheringham, Tesco has funded a new community centre and emergency services centre (the first in the UK to house all three blue light services under one roof) to replace those that will be demolished to make way for the new supermarket.
On Skye, the developer Tesco is working with is being asked to provide funding for improvements to the road that links Portree with the village of Staffin, a project for which one source says “public funding is non-existent”. Tesco was due to make a call on whether it would fund the project this week.
‘Dysfunctional’ planning system
Investment in local infrastructure by retailers looking to set up shop in an area is another plus for pro-supermarket groups. “There is terrible traffic congestion on the Staffin Link Road, especially in the summer time with all the tourists,” explains Gillies. “At times, the road is single track so part of the agreement is that they should improve the road to ease the congestion.”
Recent changes in the law giving residents greater say over how their areas can be improved also stands in these groups’ favour. Carpenter says the new rules, which allow residents to draw up their own neighbourhood plans that go on to inform local authorities’ planning strategies, are proving valuable. “This new legislative process gives a real opportunity for neighbourhoods and locals to get together and influence the way their towns are planned,” he adds.
“We have a people-led process. Residents are saying there’s a need for a supermarket in our town” Simon Killane, Wiltshire councillor
It’s putting power back in the hands of people, agrees Killane. “The UK planning system is incredibly dysfunctional,” he says. “We’ve all been living through a developer-led process in which developers say ‘I’ll give you a suitcase of money and you’ll give me access to your land.’ Now we have a people-led process in which residents are saying there’s a need for a new supermarket in Malmesbury. We’re saying ‘bring it on.’”
Of course the retailers will only “bring it on” if a proposal adds up. “We set new stores up in response to customer demand,” says Michael Kissman, Tesco community and property communications director. “We build new stores when we know they’ll be busy and popular.” And if they are - as Kissman insists the Tesco Express in Stokes Croft is - they’ll stay open. No matter how loud the Nimbys shout.
Isle of Skye
Islanders currently face a 200-mile round-trip to the nearest sizeable supermarket. And the Co-operative Group’s three stores on the island cannot keep up with summer peaks in demand, says the group campaigning for a Tesco to set up shop in the village of Portree. They claim the development of a 30,000 sq ft supermarket will bring much needed jobs to the area (about 200, Tesco reckons) and help make island life that little bit easier.
As part of the project, Tesco will be required to fund a road improvement scheme on the island. So far, the group has gathered the support of nearly 2,000 on its Facebook page. Tesco’s plans for the area will go to public consultation in October. Islanders could have to make do with the Co-op or the long drive to Inverness for some time yet.
When Tesco’s plans to move into Bristol’s “cultural quarter” got the go-ahead in 2010, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft was outraged. The community group blamed city planners for a “shameful lack of courage”and said Tesco’s presence in Stokes Croft was “wholly inappropriate”. It claimed its Boycott Tesco campaign had 93% support from the community after polling 500 residents (6,000 people live in Stokes Croft and neighbouring St Pauls).
After gathering 2,500 signatures and lobbying council officials, protests in April 2011 descended into violence after campaigners began ransacking the Tesco Express store. Despite PRSC’s claims about being on the side of the majority, Tesco says the Stokes Croft store is popular and profitable. It has no plans to leave the area.
The battle lines were drawn in this Norfolk seaside town 14 years ago, when Tesco’s first application to set up shop here was submitted. After years of campaigning and several failed applications (by Waitrose and Tesco), in 2010 planners gave the green light for an almost 4,000 sq ft Tesco to be built in the town, which is currently served by the East of England Co-operative and a recently opened Sainsbury’s Local (the closest supermarket is a Morrisons in Cromer, five miles away).
Permission didn’t come cheap though - as part of the development Tesco agreed to fund the construction of a new community centre and fire station for the town. These are currently under construction. Once completed, the construction of Sheringham’s new supermarket can begin.
Trouble has been brewing in Malmesbury ever since Waitrose and Sainsbury’s unveiled plans to develop sites on the edge of this Wiltshire market town late last year. The Nimbys have been lobbying hard, claiming if either of the plans goes ahead they would set the death knell tolling for the town.
In fact, the majority of townsfolk are in favour of a supermarket setting up shop in Malmesbury, with Waitrose out in front by a whisker (it received the support of 374 residents in a recent online poll, as opposed to Sainsbury’s 269). The Imbys say the town’s growing population is not served properly by the two existing Co-operative Group stores. Next month, Wiltshire council planners will give their judgement on the two applications and decide whether they should go to committee.
Sidcup wants a Little Waitrose. A lot. Trouble is, Waitrose doesn’t seem to want Sidcup. So far 4,600 people - including Sun columnist and Sidcup resident Gary Bushell (pictured above, right, with Bexley councillor Linda Bailey) - have signed a petition asking the retailer to reverse its April decision to withdraw plans to open one of its new format stores on the site of a former pub in the Kent town. The retailer says the proposition just doesn’t stack up.
But the Imbys aren’t giving up. “We’ve been working hard to improve the town centre and a brand like Waitrose offering something different from other retailers is just what we need,” says Bailey. Now she’s looking to hit the 5,000-signature mark with her petition, which she plans to submit to the Waitrose board later this month.
A Nimby victory in Kent. In March, Tesco axed plans to open a Tesco Express store at the site of a former pub in the quaint village of Herne citing “highways issues”. However, protest group Herne Against Tesco, which waged a five-month campaign culminating in a march that it claims was attended by more than 700 people, says the Tesco U-turn is down to the pressure it applied.
The group says the village - a conservation area - is “virtually unchanged” from how it was a century ago and the arrival of Tesco would have changed that irrevocably. The store would also have increased traffic in the village to dangerous levels, it claims, obstructing access to the neighbouring 700-year-old church and putting the existing village store and post office out of business.