Save our Sheringham - Say NO to Tesco

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tesco set for victory after Norwich Council cave in

Tesco's pursuit of sites for new stores across East Anglia took a new twist last night with taxpayers in Norfolk paying a high price for saying no to the supermarket giant. Yesterday it emerged that Tesco could win “significant costs” and get its wish for a controversial new store in Norwich despite overwhelming opposition - after warnings that councillors botched a decision to turn it down. Tesco - which has also fought a long campaign to build a Sheringham store and has recently bought land in Halesworth for a potential new development - has failed four times to build an 'Express' store in the heart of the city's golden triangle against the backdrop of a well-orchestrated protest campaign. The supermarket giant was set to appeal the latest refusal of planning consent by City Hall.But now the firm looks on course for victory - and an 'invite' to try again with its planning application - after an independent report commissioned by city council chief executive Laura McGillivray concluded the planning committee was wrong to turn the golden triangle store down and stood no chance of winning an appeal. The report, carried out by Phil Kirby, Broadland Council's chief planner, was in response to councillor complaints about the advice officers gave to members in the run up to the decision about the proposed store on the former Arlington Garage in Unthank Road. It also warns that asking Tesco to try again though “likely to be the least costly in financial terms” would “undoubtedly add to the public scepticism as to the fairness of the planning process and would need careful handling”. Planners last year recommended the scheme - but councillors rejected their advice because of concerns about congestion and the impact of delivery lorries on parking. While broadly backing the officer's handling of the issue, the independent report concluded the refusal decision made by members was “inconsistent and indefensible, and leaves the council vulnerable to a successful appeal and an award of costs against it”. It said the firm had ticked all the boxes to produce an acceptable scheme after taking on board suggestions made when previous applications were refused, but councillors shifted the goalposts when turning down the scheme.“I am of the opinion that the applicants have extremely good grounds on which to successfully appeal the council's decision and be successful in any application made for an award of costs,” he said. “Two fundamental issues of principal had not been raised in previous consideration of applications relating to this site, and as such makes a decision clearly open to challenge, notwithstanding the lack of evidence to support the reasons for refusal.” The report said the council faced a choice between mounting a costly and unwinnable legal defence at an appeal, not putting up a defence, and facing the wrath of objectors and the likelihood that Tesco would resubmit its bid - and a third choice of 'inviting' the firm to submit a new application which addressed the congestion and parking issues with a car-free scheme. But it also said it would have been helpful for officers to set in writing the consequences of saying no in advance of a follow-up meeting in January when councillors gave their detailed reasons for saying no - rather than a verbal briefing at the start of the session. Either way City Hall is at the mercy of the shopping giant, after the report concluded that Tesco would need to have a “reasonable expectation” that a fresh bid would get the green light. Further resistance to a revised would be deemed “unreasonable” and “reckless” and could even see members personally liable for the legal bill. The last time the council lost an appeal in 2005 over the St Anne's Wharf scheme it was hit with a £93,000 legal bill - while in Sheringham anti-Tesco campaigners have raised a £500,000 defence fund, a sign of the vast sums needed in any fight. Chris Hull, Green county councillor and a member of Residents Against Unthank Tesco, insisted the fight would go on and said the council should not feel railroaded into making a decision.“It's trying to tie the hands of elected members and giving them no option,” he said. “There shouldn't be any pressure for members to reconsider a decision. We are still very much determined,” he said. “Our supporters will feel even more let down and angry by the system. Laura McGillivray, who will decide which option to take, said: “In the majority of cases, committee members take officers' advice. In this particular case members' local knowledge of the locality led to their questioning the officers' recommendation and turning it down. Members and officers raised some concerns about the process and protocols followed in relation to this application, and I commissioned this report from an experienced independent planner to advise us as a council what course of action we should follow.“It will still be open to Tesco to resubmit the application, taking into account the concerns raised by members at the time of the decision.”A Tesco spokesman said last night the firm would consider its options.“In light of the decision by Norwich City Council in January to refuse our application we feel that were left with no choice but to go to appeal. Should any circumstances change or another option is presented to us we will of course consider it but in the meantime we will continue with the appeal process.”