Multiples are doing battle with the urban decay that thay have been accused of accelerating. Ed Bedington reports on the mutual benefits for community and commerce Supermarkets, once considered the bad boys of retail for taking business away from town centres by opening out of town stores, now appear to be coming to the rescue of urban impoverished areas. Multiples are falling over themselves to take part in regeneration schemes designed to revitalise run-down, poverty-stricken areas by redeveloping urban sites. Brand new stores provide hundreds of jobs, in easy to reach town centre locations where housing, retail units, cinemas, bowling alleys and restaurants are springing up. Tesco even trumpeted a bevy of new schemes when it announced its results ­ perhaps reinforcing its image as a caring supermarket while displaying how much money it is making from consumers. But in these times of spin, is this apparent benevolence merely an attempt to positively rebrand what has been forced upon them since the government put an end to out of town building? Current planning policy means town centre developments take priority over out of town projects, leaving many multiples out in the cold when it comes to big new developments. But "regeneration" projects can gain speedy approval from councils and local communities alike. After all, a whole regeneration package, promising mixed use development, housing and training and employment is likely to prove far more attractive to planners than just a plain old superstore. A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions welcomes the supermarkets' activities but points out that planning policy leaves them little choice. "Government policy encourages local authorities to approve town centre developments. We're now starting to see shoppers returning to centres, and supermarkets play an important role in that. We welcome any kind of development that helps benefit the surrounding community and, generally, any new development must have some benefit for the community to gain permission." All this could suggest that the multiples are pursuing regeneration projects out of necessity, rather than the desire to help build an inclusive society. "Most food operators would prefer a nice clean site where they can build their optimum sized store with car parking and full facilities," says property consultant Rob Asbury, a partner with Healey and Baker, "but obviously government policy is against that. Therefore they've had to adapt to expand their business." He believes regenerative development will become more common, adding: "It's got to continue ­ it's one of the only ways companies can expand." All the big supermarkets are involved in urban regeneration, with Tesco the most vociferous. The company is carrying out nine such schemes in partnership with agencies across the UK and has identified three further sites in London, the first being Beckton. Tesco says the £20m project will comprise a 109,000 sq ft Tesco Extra on the former British Gas works site ­ providing 500 new jobs ­ and a range of affordable housing, as the first phase of a retail and leisure development. The company's UK regeneration manager Martin Venning says it's not the only way the company is expanding, but it is important to them. "We are not developing for developing's sake, we are looking to build a sustainable business. The strict planning environment means we are encouraged to go to places other businesses wouldn't, and we are taking up that challenge." Venning says regeneration in deprived urban areas is a vital part of development. "You're talking about developing sites that cost millions of pounds, and we're taking the risk in areas that are not performing well, so we need to do as much as possible to minimise the risk and regeneration is a vital part of that." Tesco says it is focusing as much on the social side of regeneration as the physical, because one cannot exist without the other. Venning admits that improving the residents' situation will also pay dividends to Tesco, but only in the long term. "If we can play a part in putting more money into local people's pockets, we can expect some of that money to come back to Tesco. We can't change the world, but we can be an important catalyst." Tesco is not the only multiple going down the regeneration path. Asda has completed a number of projects around the country, building new stores in run down areas such as Hulme in Manchester and Wembley in London, for big, mixed use developments. One currently under development is at Leyton, East London. Creating more than 800 jobs, the £50m mixed use project will transform the derelict Leyton rail goods yard and provide a range of food and non-food retail as well as leisure and community facilities. But Asda's town and planning manager Alex Smith dismisses "regeneration" as a buzzword. He says the practice is nothing new and is something Asda has been doing for years. "I've been here with the company for 13 years and one of the first things I was involved with was an inner city development." However, he admits planning regulations have had an impact on the number of regeneration projects around now. "Yes, it is related to planning. We have gained approval for a development in London's Old Kent Road, which technically is an out of town site, but because it is a regenerative project and we had strong support from the local community, it was given planning approval." Property consultant Jonathon Baldock of CB Hillier Parker says the practices being pushed are not new, but that planning rules have led supermarkets to play the regeneration card more often. "That sort of thing has been going on for many years and partnerships with other organisations is not a new concept. There is a push to redevelop derelict areas and the government is keen to develop brown field sites. "Not long ago town centre supermarkets were closing in favour of the bigger out of town stores, but now they're having to consider going back to expand." Baldock says we are likely to see more derelict areas revived and that lack of space in town centres may force planners to be more flexible. Safeway property spokesman Peter Sitch dismisses his competitors' boasts of regeneration as spin doctoring. He says they have simply repackaged what Safeway has been doing for years. "We've been building most of our stores on brown field sites for a long time now and we've always sought to employ people from local communities. It makes sense. "We built a store in Bath last year and took 90 local people who were considered long-term unemployed. We took them through training and dummy interviews and ended up employing quite a few. "It makes sense to redevelop a district centre, there is already planning consent for one thing. There are a lot of 1960s centres ripe for redevelopment." However, Sitch says there is a case for shouting about their good deeds and suspects Safeway has missed an opportunity. "We do seem to be ill regarded, so maybe it would be a good idea to be more forthcoming about what we are doing. There's a lot more competition for the few developable sites that exist in the big towns, and perhaps regeneration schemes are more likely to get permission." Sainsbury's director of property Chris Fenner acknowledges that planners look at regeneration projects sympathetically, but denies the chain is exploiting the situation for public relations' purposes. "We do not promote it. The tag of regeneration' is usually put on by the community and local authorities." Sainsbury has carried out a number of regeneration projects and says they are a fundamental part of what the company is trying to achieve. As well as recent developments in Romford and Stanmore, the multiple also invested £35m in a development at the Castle Vale Estate in Birmingham. The development involved a partnership between public and private sectors and included 2,200 new and refurbished homes. Fenner says Sainsbury's investment provided the catalyst for other organisations to invest. Sainsbury is not relying only on regeneration schemes to expand, although he admits they do provide excellent opportunities. "We are seeing more regeneration at the moment because there are clear economic benefits. "They are recognised as achieving the benefits government is looking for and I think they will increase, although there's bound to be a limit." Fenner points out that regeneration schemes are not automatically approved by planners because they are in built up areas where certain sensitivities must be taken into account. "But there is a political willingness, which is positive, and it's a good starting point," he says. "In most cases they can be brought forward faster. However that is offset by the lengthy consultation process that must be gone through. But generally they are a little faster, although there is a great deal more responsibility for the developer." The experience of Tesco's Venning has taught him that regeneration schemes are not necessarily seen in a more sympathetic light by planners. "You'd think they would be, but we've found they're not. We've just had permission refused for a store in Glasgow that would have provided 500 jobs in one of the most deprived areas in the country." Venning rejects the claim that Tesco is doing nothing new by way of its regeneration projects, and says the multiple is way ahead of its competitors. "We take people who have had particular difficulties in finding work. We are dealing with the acute cases ­ people in their mid and late 30s who have never worked. "I don't think our competition is really engaging in the same way. If they were all doing it, there wouldn't be a need for us to do it." He admits the company is promoting its activities positively, but says that makes a change from the negative. "Our industry has come under the microscope and there has been a lot of focus on negative issues. People rarely hear about the good things we do." So do the multiples' regeneration schemes go as far as they could? Not according to anthropologist Professor Daniel Millar of University College, London. He says supermarkets play an important role in society, with people viewing them as providers of high quality goods at low prices. "One of the first signs that an area is on the way up is a supermarket. Impoverished shoppers feel almost degraded if they don't have access to a supermarket because they believe they have a right to those goods." Supermarkets often expand at the expense of smaller more traditional shops and, during the course of a year-long study he discovered that most people, particularly those less well off, would welcome that. "My findings were that working class people and impoverished people wanted supermarkets to expand, even if it was at the expense of local shops." Miller says that in an ideal world he'd like to see a partnership between both, but admits this is unlikely: "Right now, one is seen as destroying the other and I think it would take the government to step in. It's not an obvious extension for either side." So regeneration projects still have a way to go before they will benefit the whole community but the question remains, would supermarkets be building in these areas if planning regulations were different? According to Sainsbury's Fenner the answer is yes: "Regeneration sites provide good opportunities to develop in areas that have potential ­ it would be foolish to ignore them." And as Tesco predicts, as its regeneration schemes begin to take off, others are likely to follow. But Venning is blunt about the process. "Regeneration is not a sexy business. It means a lot much hard, long-term and frustrating work, but it's satisfying when it comes together." {{COVER FEATURE }}