Sainsbury's legal battalion in bid to defend breach of contract claim in High Court by Fens businessman Bruce Smith

PUBLISHED: 14:59 29 October 2019 | UPDATED: 14:59 29 October 2019

Editor John Elworthy chaired a public meeting in Whittlesey six years ago this month at which Whittlesey residents expressed their concerns, and support, for Sainsbury's coming to the town. Picture; ARCHANT

Editor John Elworthy chaired a public meeting in Whittlesey six years ago this month at which Whittlesey residents expressed their concerns, and support, for Sainsbury's coming to the town. Picture; ARCHANT

Archant

Sainsbury's deployed an eight-strong legal team as they began a High Court breach of contract case over an aborted store opening in Whittlesey.

The case, expected to last well into next week, began on Monday with March businessman Bruce Smith claiming the supermarket giant's decision to abandon the Whittlesey project was unlawful.

Sainsbury's case is that they were entitled to terminate the agreement and to simply walk away.

Mr Smith's case, on the surface, appears simple: he argues that Sainsbury's contract was binding once Fenland District Council agreed the second, and final, application within the time frame everyone believed they were all working towards.

The March based entrepreneur recognised it was a race against time and realised too that Sainsbury's was intent on delaying matters once they'd decided, internally at least; they no longer wished to proceed.

"As they kept pulling the rabbits out of the hat, I kept putting them back in," was his response under questioning by Mark Wannacott, QC, on behalf of Sainsbury's.

After an opening morning in which both sides had briefly set out their stalls, Mr Smith was called to give evidence. The questioning from Mr Wannacott was at times fractious, at times not without some levity, but mainly pernickety as he tried to mould an opinion of Mr Smith for the judge of a boy from the Fens struggling to understand the complexities of corporate matters.

A priceless moment came when Mr Wannacott read an email from the files that seemingly Mr Smith had sent to himself.

But as Mr Wannacott criss crossed through a labyrinth of evidence, Mr Smith held firm.

"He was an extremely difficult man to deal with," Mr Smith said of Ian Forster of Gildenburgh Water whose land was included, but then excluded, from the Sainsbury's deal.

"Mr Forster was and is the most impossible person to deal with," said Mr Smith, explaining why he had varied the plans, and altered the specification for a roundabout access to the proposed store.

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At another stage in proceedings he said of Mr Forster: "He was a man I felt sorry for, afraid to sneeze, afraid of his own shadow. He can't help that but I bear him no malice."

The Sainsbury's strategy appears to be exploring the minutiae of detail - and that includes the personalities - involved in delivering the land and the associated business centre and country park at Whittlesey.

Mr Wannacott wanted to know what Mr Smith thought of Harrier and their proposals for a Tesco store, how those plans failed to come to fruition, and of how Fenland Council opted for the scheme put forward by Mr Smith.

The Sainsbury's QC at one point intruded into Mr Smith's financial affairs but a stiff rebuke saw him quickly move on. Inexplicably too Mr Wannacott suggested Mr Smith had hired a Jersey private detective agency to dig up information on Harrier. Mr Smith pointed out that the agency had, in fact, approached him to track down the principals of Harrier over a car debt - as a quick Google search of Cambs Times articles from 2014 would have confirmed.

As the afternoon moved on, Mr Wannacott seized upon emails, being told several times by Mr Smith he "couldn't remember" or help further with some points raised.

"I'm not known for dotting the I's and crossing the Ts," he replied at the end of one gruelling session.

But Mr Smith was in combative form in responding to what he saw as the race against time to get permission for the store and within what he argued was the time frame Sainsbury's had agreed.

"Sainsbury's was kicking the can down the road," he said prior to an impassioned few moments in which he spoke of being a Whittlesey boy wanting to use the success of the development to deliver for his home town. He had promised the country park, promised support for a local football team, pledged to help local organisations once the scheme was delivered.

"I was delivering for my home town," he said.

Much is at stake during this case but Mr Smith still hurts about the way Sainsbury's withdrew from the scheme,

"I got an email from them," he said. "Two lines terminating the contract. I went to see them - and was there for just four minutes."

The case continues.

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