Tesco struggles to win over middle England
Tesco's much-vaunted retail skills were on display in St Albans on Thursday night. But this time it was not selling its wares - but itself. Before an invited audience in the prosperous Hertfordshire commuter town, a team from the store chain unveiled plans for a supermarket and residential development on its largest brownfield site. The supermarket, Tesco's emissaries insisted, would regenerate the city centre, provide jobs, and have no impact on traffic, since Tesco would also widen a key road bordering the site.But the group, including Eric Roberts, chairman of the civic society, was not impressed. "They smiled and were open to discussion," reported Mr Roberts. "But they don't understand; I am opposed to this plan. There simply should not be a supermarket on that site." To the chain's chagrin, his intransigence is mirrored across the country.
Singled out by the Competition Commission in a report on Tuesday for its potential over-dominance of the UK high street, it is stepping up its attempts to win hearts and minds. Groups with names like People in North Berwick Against Tesco (Pinbat), Traders Enduring Supermarkets' Continued New Openings (Tescno) in Colchester, and Tolworth Residents against Over Development (Trod) tell a story of middle England on the march. But the hundreds of banner wavers, petitioners and local paper letter-writers insist their anti-Tescoism has less to do with the company than with society. Like Wal-Mart in the US, Tesco now serves as reviled symbol for the larger trend of supermarket gigantism. Supermarkets, most groups claim, will kill local business, congest traffic on crowded streets, take over space that could better be used for housing, and damage English town life. "We have enough superstores at the moment, whether it's Tesco or Sainsbury or Asda," said Rob Hattersley, of Hereford Against Supermarkets Squash-ing Our Local Economy (Hassle). "We want Hereford to develop its individual character, not just become another clone town. There are lively markets here that could become even better."
Finding itself the target of a scattered movement against homogeneity, Tesco is emphasising its human side as part of a community outreach plan that it announced last April. "We meet local resident groups, history groups, local business groups, when we're planning a big site," said Katherine Edwards, a corporate affairs manager at Tesco. "We now have some kind of consultation process with every superstore that is under application." History suggests it may prove a wise precaution; while such groups are often composed predominantly of disgruntled shop-owners, their impact can be decisive. Last November, Tesco dropped plans for a town-centre supermarket development in Darlington after a Say No to Tesco campaign gathered more than 11,000 signatures. An Ipsos Mori poll for the council found that 77 per cent of residents opposed the plan. As well as brushing up its communication skills, Tesco is taking more concrete steps to allay concerns. It increasingly sweetens deals with local authorities by funding road im-provements around its sites. And in many of its developments it builds flats, including affordable housing. The company, however, cannot easily counter a deeper-running complaint: that supermarkets are antithetical to towns' traditional scale of business and life.
In Norwich, a petition from Residents Against Unthank Tesco (Raut), an action group, contributed to Tesco losing three successive planning applications to build on the city's Unthank Road. Chris Hull, its leader, says: "It's a street of Victorian buildings filled with traditional shops, and a Tesco is inappropriate."
Most action group leaders agree, including Mr Roberts in St Albans, who said: "I just don't believe any of their arguments that this will be good for the town."