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Tesco riot drives call for supermarket planning review

By Phil Kemp
BBC Radio 4's The Report

image captionCampaigners in Stokes Croft, Bristol objected to the opening of a Tesco store in their neighbourhood

Campaigners are calling for greater transparency in UK planning law so communities are made more aware of new businesses opening in their area.

The Tesco Express which was the focus of riots in Bristol in April is still boarded up and has now been covered in graffiti.

"I love community," has been daubed on one of the hoardings.

Another scrawled message reads "not welcome".

For those who witnessed the disturbances in the Stokes Croft area of the city earlier this year, it is clear who the messages are meant for.

For years Stokes Croft has been a bohemian area, crammed with independent shops, squats, bars and clubs.

It is this individual character which some people felt would be compromised by the arrival of supermarket giant Tesco, even in its smaller Tesco Express guise.

These objections were not confined to a few disgruntled squatters, say campaigners, who claim thousands of people sent postcards to Bristol City Council objecting to the opening of another supermarket, with thousands more signing a petition.

Much of the anger was directed at the planning process which failed to make it clear a new supermarket was on the cards.

Planning reform

The Tesco case prompted Bristol City Council to write to the Department for Communities and Local Government.

image captionThe Tesco Express store in Stokes Croft remains closed after it was vandalised in April this year

Along with the London Assembly, they have called for a new "supermarket" classification in planning law.

At present, express supermarkets come under the 'A1' classification which can cover any type of retail outlet - a vintage clothes shop, a hairdressing salon, even an undertaker.

The impact a new supermarket can have on an area, such as frequent deliveries from heavy goods vehicles, should put Tesco, Sainsbury's, Lidl and the like, in a class of their own, say campaigners.

Bristol councillor Alex Woodman said: "What we're asking the government to do is refine the A1 class so that it distinguishes between, say, small local independent retailers and national chain stores, where the impact on the local area is potentially more significant."

He told BBC Radio 4's The Report that had his committee known about Tesco's interest, they would have given more consideration to the potential impact the store would have on the local area.

"Because we didn't know that at the time, the council wasn't able to consider the impacts and we were in a situation where planning permission was granted without any thought being given to them," he said.

In response to Bristol City Council's call for changes to planning regulations, the Department for Communities and Local Government said that it was not the role of the planning system to restrict competition, or give preference to one retailer over another.

'Nothing underhand'

Claire Milne, co-ordinator of the No Tesco in Stokes Croft campaign, believes Tesco deliberately kept quiet about its intentions.

"We know from various people in the community that Tesco have been looking in this area for at least a few years," she said.

"If they were genuinely being true to what they claim in their social responsibility report and on their website - that as soon as they identify a site they start talking and listening to the local community - then we would have heard from them."

But Tesco's head of property communications, Michael Kissman, says there was nothing underhand in the way Tesco went about setting up in Stokes Croft.

He said the original planning application was put in by the administrators of a comedy club, who were struggling to find someone to take over the property.

"They were clear that the purpose of its change of use was to make it more marketable to future occupiers," he said.

Mr Kissman told the BBC that Tesco had decided to invest in an area which had long been abandoned by other retailers, creating jobs and providing products and services.

Advantage in turndown

Despite the campaigners' plea for greater restrictions on supermarket chains, retail experts believe there could be a continued expansion in the number of supermarket convenience stores in the future.

Professor Cliff Guy, from the School of City and Regional Planning at Cardiff University, said "despite the recession it's hard to see any sign of the supermarket expansion slowing down."

Up until now it has mainly been Tesco and Sainsbury's which have been opening smaller, convenience-style supermarket stores.

But Professor Guy believes fellow retail giants Waitrose and Morrisons have clear plans to develop more shops in this field and the current economic climate could make their ambitions easier to fulfil.

"In one sense the recession helps because it makes property more available and so there is more opportunity.

"Despite worries about this, lots of planners will be quite receptive to [the supermarkets] because they want to see their town centres functioning properly - they don't want empty shops."

The Report will be broadcast on Thursday 19 May at 2000 BST on BBC Radio 4.

You can listen again via the iPlayer or download the podcast.

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