Against the odds and in defiance of chief planning officer and council solicitor, councillors opt for Sainsbury’s over Tesco for Whittlesey

HE withdrew as a planning committee member to be free to speak his mind in support of Sainsbury’s and even his critics would argue that Councillor Martin Curtis did so spectacularly.

His passionate- and at times hostile – rebuff of Tesco’s supermarket aspirations for Whittlesey helped produce one of the most startling U-turns in Fenland planning history.

And even before the main debates got under way Cllr Curtis drew widespread applause from the packed Manor Leisure Centre in Whittlesey where the meeting took place by attacking that day’s fly posting by Tesco supporters.

“You do not endear yourself to the community by fly posting like you have done today,” he said, pointing out posters had even been put up outside the town hall.

“I object to what Tesco has done around town today. “

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Cllr Curtis said Tesco’s behaviour had been “absolutely scandalous” and called for them to apologise. Councillor Jan French, whose Cabinet portfolio includes enforcement against fly posting, interjected to say that Tesco would get a warning letter.

Against all the odds and against the advice of both chief planning officer Graham Nourse and Fenland Council solicitor Ian Hunt, councillors opted by a two thirds majority to reject Tesco and back Sainsbury’s.

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Throughout Wednesday’s four meeting at Manor Leisure Centre, Whittlesey, and in front of 250 townsfolk Mr Nourse and Mr Hunt consulted frequently – and almost frantically- to persuade councillors to stick to allowing Tesco’s new store in Eastrea Road and to reject a rival bid by Sainsbury’s.

As decision time approached Cllr French told colleagues that in her 13 years on Fenland Council this had been one of the hardest decisions she had been involved with and she was “struggling to make up my mind”.

But she was critical of the emphasis placed by Mr Hunt on the legal contract by Harrier with Tesco which stated the commitment to build a store either in Station Road or Eastrea Road.

“I have never seen this legal contract and besides it is none of our business,” said Cllr French who argued it was up to councillors to decide the issue on planning grounds alone.

The climactic vote was a bit ramshackle as the first motion, by Councillor Florrie Newell, to approve all the applications – effectively allowing two stores in Eastrea Road- failed and a motion to approve the Tesco application almost came next week. However Councillor Jan French reminded chairman Phil Hatton that an earlier motion, by Councillor David Connor, in support of Sainsbury’s had been tabled properly and ought to be put to councillors.

He argued Sainsbury’s offered more to the community, reflected the Government’s localism agenda and to supportive shouts of ‘we live here’ from many in the room argued that the council ought to listen to what the people of Whittlesey wanted.

And with that the vote to approve Sainsbury’s, reject Tesco’s Eastrea Road site, approve an ancillary business park proposed by March businessman Bruce Smith who had also coordinated the Sainsbury’s bid, the meeting ended.

Town councillor Dee Laws said Whittlesey Town Council supported the Sainsbury’s bid – which included a country park- over the Tesco bid.

Andy Pepper, representing the Co-op, said: “We urge members to consider protecting our town centre. We are now faced with two or three out of town food stores, and approval will impact on the town centre.”

Steve Parker, representing Whittlesey Business Forum, said Tesco brought no advantage to the town centre, and was “purely for the benefit of Tesco.”

Harrier agent David Pritchard said Tesco would bring significant benefits, including a half hourly hopper bus service; and Liz Dent, of ICIS Consulting Ltd said the �250,000 offered for town centre improvements could be spent on removing buses from the Market Square.

“We are trying to do the right thing by moving the Station Road premises,” she added.

Representing Tesco, Louise Gosling said: “We have huge support. We have 750 letters of support asking us to get on with it, and they should not be ignored.”

After a question from Councillor Jan French, Ms Gosling admitted the letters were all on pro formas, but said they were “still valid.”

Michael Thomas, a highways consultant for Harrier, said the company had pledged enough money to provide a hopper bus for seven years.

Mr Nourse argued the Sainsbury’s application was contrary to national planning policy and the district council’s emerging core strategy, and was in an unsustainable location.

But Cllr Law said the town council “has been extremely impressed by Sainsbury’s application and they are clear about what they offer.”

“Please listen to the overwhelming voice of the residents, the business forum, and the town council and approve the food store and country park.”

She said she was surprised to hear of Tesco’s offer of an extra �250,000, saying Sainsbury’s offers had been “visible from day one.”

David Pritchard, agent for Harrier, said if Sainsbury’s were given permission, it would result in two supermarkets being built, and consultants had concluded that the town could only support one food store.

“To bet on the Station Road proposal not being built is treating it as some sort of gamble, and you should not play poker with the future of Whittlesey town centre.”

Referring to the 750 letters of support for Tesco, Cllr Curtis pointed out that all except one had been sent in to the district council before Sainsbury’s made their application.

“Whittlesey people do support Sainsbury’s,” he said. “That Tesco is quoting that support is farcical.

Cllr Curtis said the proposed country park was “a great use of the space,” and a vast majority of residents were excited by it.

Resident Brian Parker said: “The majority of people believe Sainsbury’s will offer a lot more resources for Whittlesey. We want choice, and Tesco would not give us choice. We have enough Tesco stores.”

Robert Oxley, a director of Sainsbury’s, said “We will deliver on our promises and deliver what we say.”

Sainsbury’s agent Sean McGrath, said Sainsbury’s was the only real option, because of the conflict over the roundabout between Harrier and Larkfleet.

“The Tesco Station Road site is not viable, no ifs or buts,” he said. “If it was viable, it would be open and trading now.

Highways consultant Mike Axon pointed out that the railway gates in Station Road were closed 80 to 90 times a day, and shoppers had a 20-80 per cent chance of being stopped for four or five minutes.

“This is a deterrent, and only five per cent of people will choose the Station Road store exclusively,” he said.

Bruce Smith, whose company prepared both the Sainsbury’s bid and an adjoining business park scheme, said he had been surprised that support previously shown for his bid was later withdrawn.

Mr Smith, born and bred in the town, added that he had long held a dream to build a country park in Whittlesey and denied the Sainsbury’s scheme would damage the town’s vibrancy.

“We are here to help improve Whittlesey not destroy it,” he said.

He now has three weeks to agree finer details of his application before it is signed off by the planning committee.

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