SUPERMARKETGATE: A striking display of people power as audience stays rooted for seven hours to watch Sainsbury’s win the day
01:32 24 January 2013
IT was the most striking display of people power seen locally for years as an audience of some 200-250 sat transfixed for nine hours to ensure councillors approved Sainsbury’s.
Their outrage had got the concluding meeting of ‘supermarketgate’ back at the Manor Leisure Centre and not, as proposed, 15 miles away at Wisbech St Mary but there was no air of celebration.
As speech after speech vented forth the arguments both for and against both Tesco and Sainsbury’s it was the audience that held the planning committee of Fenland Council in the palms of its hands.
Many were pensioners, and mostly all were people from the community who thought last summer councillors had settled supermarketgate once and for all before discovering they hadn’t.
Last night, however, every speech, every murmur and every claim was tested before a Whittlesey ‘jury’ that stayed rooted to their seats. For the whole seven hours they neither sought nor were offered tea, coffee or biscuits and, bar the occasional call of nature, were going nowhere until a conclusion was reached.
They had been threatened with expulsion if they behaved badly but they never did, though a feckless planner got throaty coughs when they felt they were being done over: even the chairman Councillor Phil Hatton agreed, in principle, with their fury.
In the event only councillor Alex Miscandlon was left voting for Tesco, whose surprise re-instatement of permission for a store in Eastrea Road, adjacent to the site previously agreed for Sainsbury’s, led to last night’s showdown. Council chairman Michael Humphrey voted against the proposal to refuse Tesco (that vote was 12 for and 2 against), and he voted in favour of the proposals to approve the Sainsbury’s and Whitacre applications (they went 13 for and 1 against).
Because lawyers had advised the council that allowing two supermarkets on adjacent sites was commercial suicide for the town a re-run of last year’s decisions was put in place.
Officers who had previously recommended Tesco be allowed to surrender their existing consent for Station Road and switch to Eastrea Road – rejecting plans by Sainsbury’s in the process- retained that position almost to the end.
By 9m, and after both parties and most councillors had spoken, it was evident the mood was for Sainsbury’s whose package included a country park and a new business park for clean tec companies wanting to move to the area. It was an intoxicating package that won over the town council, the business community, the townsfolk and, ultimately, the committee.
Councillor Derek Stebbing said the Tesco site was better suited for housing; Councillor Virginia Bucknor liked the idea of more open space created through the Sainsbury’s scheme whilst vice chairman Councillor David Connor wondered what, if anything had changed from when the committee rejected Tesco last summer.
Ian Hunt, the chief solicitor to FDC, warned of legal threats but Councillor Mark Archer told him he was “astonished we’re back here. I am concerned by what I believe is resistance by officers to Sainsbury’s”.
Planning officer Graham Nourse warned that experts had advised the town could only approve one supermarket and since Tesco already had consent for Station Road – and would switch that consent to Eastrea Road- they clearly had legal contracts in place which needed to be considered.
Councillor Will Sutton tackled the issue of sustainability, arguing that it meant different things to different people. He was responding to Mr Nourse’s insistence that the Tesco site offered a more sustainable use of the land.
As the mood of councillors clearly moved in favour of Sainsbury’s, officers appeared more conciliatory to the outcome and steered the committee through to backing up their decisions with phraseology that could withstand scrutiny.
Not before 10pm did the final wording of documents get sanctioned and relayed to remaining councillors, officials, developers and a hard residue of townsfolk.
Sainsbury’s expect to start work soon: they plan to open in 2014.
David Pritchard – planning consultant
“The committee report shows that the Tesco application accords with the council’s core strategy.
“Officers and a planning retail consultant say only ONE retail store can be built, or the town centre will suffer.
“If you grant Tesco’s application then you will get only one supermarket, but if you grant Sainsbury’s application, then there will be two, because Tesco will go ahead at Station Road.
“There is only one decision that can be made to comply with planning policy, and that is the Harrier/Tesco scheme. Relocating Tesco from Station Road to Eastrea Road will make the Station Road site available for industrial development.
“Harrier is contractually bound to provide a store for Tesco in Whittlesey and Tesco is contractually bound to it. One way or another, a Tesco store provided by Harrier will be built in Whittlesey.”
Jonathan Simpson – corporate affairs manager for Tesco
“I want to reassure you of our absolute commitment to build a store in Whittlesey, if we do not get permission in Eastrea Road, we will go ahead in Station Road. We have a watertight agreement to take forward our Station Road site.
“Our application has considerable support locally (laughter!!!)
Reuben Taylor – barrister for Tesco
“Harrier is contracted to carry out works for a new store at Eastrea Road, or Station Road if planning permission is refused for Eastrea Road and Tesco is contracted to fit out and take a 25 year lease on the Station Road site.
“A Tesco store is coming to Whittlesey in any event, because of contractual obligations.”
Michael Thomas – consulting engineer
“The railway crossing would not have an effect on the viability of a food store on Station Road.
He said the £251,000 for the bus service link to the town centre was the same as offered by Sainsbury’s, and Tesco anticipated a bus service running for at least give years.
“We will give the £251,000 to the council for them to provide the service. We originally offered to provide the hopper bus, but the council asked us to make a financial contribution instead.
Answering a question about the railway gates, he said: “A transport assessment in 2009 said that in the worse case, they were closed 50 per cent of the time. We still come up with the analysis that this will not have a significant effect on a food store.
Asked about who was given the bus money, he said: “Our clients pay it to FDC, if they give it to CCC, that is their decision.
When asked about the roundabout: “The proposal by Harrier for a roundabout on the south side of Eastrea Road does have sufficient capacity to deal with the Larkfleet and Harrier developments, where as the Larkfleet consented roundabout does not have sufficient capacity to deal with the Sainsbury’s development.”
Bruce Smith – Whitacre
“I am the reason you are all here this afternoon. The country park was my idea seven years ago.”
He said a meeting with Fenland DC said it was something Fenland needed.
“I have to ask a question, what has changed since our pre-application discussions?
“Why were we encouraged to go to the huge expense of putting in a planning application?
“We have a lot of support in Whittlesey for the country park, and the Friends of the Country Park want to take an active interest. The park will be a facility for the town and we welcome local input.”
“I want to help improve Whittlesey, not destroy it, and make Whittlesey a vibrant place.
“I am looking at personally funding some town centre improvements, it is not a sweetener, and I am passionate about Whittlesey.”
He said some businesses already lined up to take business units, including an eye surgery business, furniture maker and optician.
“I deliver, give me an opportunity and I will deliver for Whittlesey. Harrier has delivered nothing in Fenland except uncertainty.
“Every aspect of our application has been correct, and Harrier will not be successful in a legal challenge. Your decision today is about delivering something tangible for Whittlesey. I hope you will not be bullied by the threat of legal action that is scare tactics.”
Regarding the country park – he said “we are confident it will generate its own upkeep after 10 years. There are 60 acres, worth £500,000, if I can’t make that work I need my arse kicking. The Friends of the Country Park will run and regulate the country park.”
Andrew Hodgson – planning consultant for Savills, and agent for the business park
“There is still a chance to change the core strategy so we comply with it, FDC could incorporate the land into the core strategy.
“The business park will generate significant employment, our office in Peterborough has been marketing the site and e has had a lot of interest from many businesses. There is a lot of interest in locating there because of Sainsbury’s. Phase one is 80 per cent let subject to Sainsbury’s getting planning permission.
Sean McGrath, planning advisor
“Quite why we are all back here, only a select number of officers know.”
“The country park will provide a boundary for Whittlesey to prevent sprawl in the future.
“Station Road site is a red herring, I don’t believe Tesco will open there.
“The level crossing cuts it off from its customers, the barrier is down 28 minutes each our. Local people know this, the only people who have not grasped this point is the officers.
“Roger Tym consultants have said the Station Road site would not be viable, and the officers have ignored the advice they have paid for? Tesco has not delivered stores that would be viable, in Wisbech and Chatteris, so why would they build one that is unviable?
“For your reassurance, if Tesco opened in Station Road, that is unviable, then the cumulative impact of that and a Sainsbury’s store on the town centre would be acceptable.
“People in Whittlesey want the country park and Sainsbury’s will deliver it.
“Whittlesey can only support one successful store, if two stores were granted in Eastrea Road, then nothing would happen, and a no development scenario would suit Tesco.”
“If you support Sainsbury’s, the people of Whittlesey will get houses on the Harrier site, a supermarket, a country park and a business park.
“A Sainsbury’s store provides so much more for the people of Whittlesey that is why local people back it.”
Mike Axon – transport planner
“We have a happy relationship between our access and Larkfleet’s consented access that works well. I would like to say we are also happy to support Larkfleet’s proposal for a new location for their roundabout.
Hopper bus – The route has been worked out with local people, will run from 7am to 7pm, with a 30 minute frequency or better.
“We will pump prime this service and it will continue in perpetuity, Tesco’s bus service would be for five years, our service is much better than that.”
Station Road – A food store in Station Road is not attractive because of the level crossing. More often or not there is a 50-75 per cent chance of the Station Road store customers being help up. Queues would form, 400-500 metres long on a Saturday, in both directions.
“It is common sense that people will be put off by that level of inconvenience.
Robert Oxley – Sainsbury’s development executive
“Today the decision is for members and not officers, and I am sure you will vote in the best interests of the people of Whittlesey.
He said Sainsbury’s offered 250 new jobs for local people, and Sainsbury’s had a good track record of building new stores in the area.
“We are promising a significant investment in the town.”
“We have not experience of delivering a country park, it is a pioneering scheme.
“We have the chance to deliver something great, and break new ground.”
He assured the committee that the supermarket would go ahead without the business park.
When Cllr Mark Archer asked him if the officers’ door had been open and Sainsbury’s received the answers they needed:
“It has been a fraught few months. Accessibility has not been as good as in other circumstances, it has become quite heated.
“I felt we had a favourable decision after nine hours of discussion, but after another 20 minutes another application was approved.
“I accept it is a challenging application because only one can be approved.
“Two major supermarkets are going head to head, there is pressure on the officers, members and applicants.”
Dee Laws – chairman of Whittlesey Town Council Planning Committee.
Business park – “This would be a valuable boost for local people seeing employment.”
She said there was a shortage of medium sized units for business, and the proposed business park was for retail and professional use, not heavy industry.
“All indications are that Sainsbury’s will work in harmony with the town. The hopper bus will be a great benefit to bring residents into the town centre.
“We should be grabbing this opportunity with both hands.
“Although this application does not comply with officers’ recommendations, as councillors we are elected to work in the best interests of the town.
She said the town council thinks the building of two supermarkets in Eastrea Road is not feasible. We are in complete agreement that Sainsbury’s should be built in Eastrea Road, and Tesco in Station Road, that is a sensible solution for market forces to decide.”
When asked if the business units would threaten the town centre, she said: “If we had any fear of direct competition we would not support it.
“We absolutely embrace the country park. We have to consider health and well being, and the country park offers that.”
Andy Pepper – regional planning manager for Co-op Group
“We feel both applications should be refused while the Station Road permission is still outstanding.
“We feel both applications are in an unsustainable location and a hopper bus would not make them sustainable.”
Timothy Willis – Larkfleet Homes
He said their 460 homes consent cannot be developed because of problems with access
They have applied to vary their roundabout permission – so they are not dependent on a third party, deferred last week, going back for decision February 6
“We don’t support Sainsbury’s or Tesco, we just want to build our houses.”
Steve Parker – Whittlesey Business Forum
He said Sainsbury’s was the preferred option. “The Sainsbury’s proposal adds more for the community, the country park will be an amenity, giving the town an enhanced leisure facility and a chance of tourism.
“Tesco has had permission for a store for three years and have done nothing with it.
“Be honest to your electorate and confirm the Sainsbury’s application.”
Justin Mills – planning consultant from Contour Planning, a Tesco planning consultant.
He was allowed to speak because technically Tesco are not applicants, but there was coughing, stamping of feet by audience who tried to stop him speaking.
He said he objected to Sainsbury’s supermarket and the business units.
“Approval of Sainsbury’s supermarket would result in two food stores being built, which would have a catastrophic affect on the town centre, from which it might never recover.”
Cllr Archer complained about Justin Mills being given “an extra bite of the cherry.”
Cllr Martin Curtis – who says he shops at Tesco at Hampton, said he wanted to destroy a couple of popular myths – that Tesco has popular support. He said most letters of support were written before Sainsbury’s made its application
His survey said 62 per cent of people in favour of Sainsbury’s and 17 per cent in favour of Tesco.
“Core strategy could be changed tomorrow to reflect the decision you make today.”
The hopper bus seven days a week makes the Sainsbury’s site more accessible. It is a better service than offered by Tesco.
He complained that Tesco made its offer of £251,000 for hopper bus at the last minute: “We are talking about multi-million pound planning applications here that is not the way to do business.”
He said the Tesco site would be better used for housing.
Railway crossing – gate is closed for 28 minutes each hour, and will be closed for longer when rail improvements are carried out.
“So Station Road site will become less viable as time goes on.”
He said the business park “offers a much needed opportunity for business growth and jobs for Fenland.
Country Park – “There is a clear and defined lack of open space in Whittlesey. Don’t turn that down, it meets an identifiable need. We have got 10 years to sort out the funding
“A Sainsbury’s store and Country Park will provide a clear boundary between Whittlesey and Eastrea, and does not take up valuable housing land.
“All evidence from my survey, the town council and the business forum, shows the preferred solution is Sainsbury’s supermarket and country park.
“It is by far the better application and has local support.
He said the way Tesco had gone about its application was “unhelpful” and “some say there has been bullying tactics.”
Cllr Curtis added: “Please be consistent and restore Whittlesey’s faith in Fenland and support Sainsbury’s and the country park