Tesco vs Sherborne – can the big guy afford to blink?

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Extended version of my story  “Tesco, not in our backyard”,  published in the Times 19 March 2013.  Comments below.

The lady from Tesco is having a horrible day. She’s driven from Bristol – leaving a sick toddler behind – to the little Dorset town of Sherborne where, frankly, almost everybody hates her. Her job is to sell the idea of a new Tesco store to a community that doesn’t want it, at a time when Tesco – according to a recent Which? magazine-  is by far the most unpopular supermarket in Britain. And the survey was done was before horseburgergate.

They don’t look aggressive, the townsfolk who’ve marched up the famously charming high street to Digby Hall, where Tesco is staging a presentation, “Investing in Sherborne”. There’s a preponderance of tweed and country jacket green; some dreadlocks but more trim hair-dos. The protest posters are decorous against the honey-coloured stone – there’s a “No Thanks Tesco” made of buttons and embroidery in Tesco colours. The rudest slogan asks the supermarket chain to “burger off”. “It’s just like Les Miserables,” someone laughs – but it is actually a very English affair.

There is a TV crew and local celebrities: Valerie Singleton, journalist, once of Blue Peter, and Canon Eric Woods, vicar of Sherborne Abbey. He is impressive in red-buttoned, ankle-length black robes. He says that Tesco is just wrong for a town like Sherborne, and won’t do any good. “You’d be amazed at this stereotype of supermarkets being cheaper. It’s just not true. Our local butcher is cheaper: I should know, on a parson’s stipend you have got to be canny.” Most of the attention goes to the anti-Tesco pony, a live one, led by a former BBC journalist.

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But these people are determined – 250 have turned out to march on a foggy February Tuesday. Hair salon owner Robin James quotes Churchill: “Sometimes it’s not enough to do our best. We must do what is required.” hat has meant closing up his Lifestyle Salon and Spa in Cheap St: a dozen other shops and businesses have papered over their windows or closed up for an hour, all to show what Sherborne might be if the Tesco winter comes to lie upon the town.

Inside the hall, the atmosphere was akin to a bear-baiting.  Whenever I looked for Tesco’s Melanie Chiswell, she was in a circle of people busy shaking their fingers at her. Accusations of deceit, not listening, arrogance, bullying, censorship and even – god forbid! – “capitalism red in tooth and claw” were flying. When tnot queueing to argue with Chiswell and her colleagues, people are busy at the boards that carry Tesco’s architect’s visions of different car park options and store frontages for comment.

They’re scribbling post-it notes, and these are not positive: “You/Tesco are not to be trusted and you are not wanted” “Are we to become totally dead, like Blandford?” “Tesco has no style or grace, loud and brash… a hateful organization” . The kindest thing written about the design for the new store, due to replace a 1960s hotel on Sherborne’s outskirts, was that it looked like a crematorium.

One of the few young people in the hall is  21-year-old Alex Wood, leather-jacketed and sporting a UKIP badge. He says he doesn’t want Tesco to come to Sherborne, even though he’s looking for a job. Tesco have [promised 200 of those, even though many will be part-time. He’s wearing a UKIP badge and takes a skeptical attitude. “I don’t believe a word of it, I’ve applied for jobs at the Tesco up the road in Yeovil. They don’t want people who are over 21, or who’ve been in education. They want the cheapest possible labour.”

Tesco’s Melanie Chiswell is slight and blonde and pretty chipper, under the onslaught. She looks relieved to be extracted from a conversation with a very grumpy Barbour coat, who has been accusing her of censoring complaints at an earlier “consultation”. “We’re happy to talk,” she says. “We’re aware there’s strong opposition. We want people to work with us to design an appropriate store.“

She works from Bristol in corporate affairs, so she must be used to this sort of thing. After all, Tesco is in the middle of the biggest expansion in the history of retail, acquiring pubs and former grocery stores across the recession-hit land. A million square feet of new stores were opened last year – some 170 shops, some on town edges, most at the heart of the High Streets. At all sites, Tesco hold a “public consultation” like this. After that, a planning permission is submitted. And then, perhaps, there will be an inquiry.

Some supermarket planning appeals go up to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has tended to rule in favour of the retailer. It can be a long haul, getting a superstore built in the shires, today. But the shops have deep pockets and, 19 times out of 20, they win. “There isn’t a democratic body that can stand in their way, if they’re determined they want something,” says the journalist Joanna Blythman, author of Shopped, a classic account of the rise and rise of the supermarkets. Blythman is patron of the No Thanks Tesco campaign.

Chiswell’s pitch is centred on “choice”. Sherborne deserves it, it only has Sainsbury’s and Co-op, and the nearest Tescos (three, with a fourth planned) are six miles distant in Yeovil. “We know a lot of people are driving to Yeovil to do their shopping…  and they’re not spending their money in Sherborne. We’d like to capture those people, provide a supermarket so they can shop locally and hope they’re incentivised to spend more time shopping in Sherborne. There would be more people shopping in Sherborne than do at the moment.”

This argument does not sound logical, but there is research that shows the arrival of supermarkets can actually boost a town. Professor Neil Wrigley, of Southampton University, has done before and after studies in six English market towns. He says they show that small shops in town centres tend to get more, not less, business after the opening of a super-store on the town fringe. The research was, it should be pointed out, funded by Tesco.

I suggest to Chiswell that there is a ghost at this meeting: Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco’s former CEO, the man who took the company to the point where one in six pounds spent on food in Britain was spent in his shops. Last month on Desert Island Discs he said that he saw the closure of small shops as “a sign of progress”. Chiswell didn’t want to talk about that. And she didn’t convince many in Sherborne that afternoon, even the two men who said they’d back Tesco if Melanie could guarantee it would sell petrol cheaper (she couldn’t). The campaigners carried out an exit poll at the end of the afternoon at  Digby Hall:  663 against and 47 undecided.

Sherborne’s Cheap Street is exactly the sort of high street that Leahy disparagingly called “medieval” on Radio Four.  It is ia bit of a time-warp –  a model English town, miraculously preserved. There’s even a gift shop called Forever England. But among the tourist kitsch is a wealth of useful, independent shops: a butcher who sells local lamb, beef and poultry, a baker, a greengrocer, a travel agent. There’s even – and these are so rare now they are the white rhinos of Britain – a hardware shop. There’s a bi-weekly market in the little square and 13 hairdressers. All this undoubtedly helps in attracting 50,000 visitors a year, several thousand of whom stay in the Sherborne Hotel, whose site Tesco wants to take over.

The proprietors of  Vineyards, the wine merchant, are Hannah Wilkins and Shelley Norton, two young women who started their business eight years ago, in their early 20s. Born and bred in Sherborne, Hannah boasts of matching supermarkets price for price, and adding the old-fashioned extras: advice, time to chat, knowledge of the merchandise. A new Tesco could hurt, but that’s not why they’re boarding up the shop and joining the protest. “It might have a negative effect on us. But the real issue is that the town needs the hotel more than it needs another supermarket. A hotel brings the tourists here. “

Back in Cheap Street, I did meet some people who want Tesco to come to the town. Karen Brown runs one of the few shops – compared to most British high streets – that is a charity business. “Sherborne! The waiting room of the Gods!” she groaned. “But I think Sherborne’s not just for rich, posh people”. Hannah Snee-Brown a mother of two, works as a care assistant at a local old people’s home:  “I’m for it. There’s 200 jobs and we need them. I live opposite Sainsbury’s and I know Tesco is cheaper. I thought I was the only person in Sherborne who‘s saying yes to Tesco. So I put it on Facebook and all my friends agree with me.”

As you’d expect a digital war is being played out over Tesco and Sherborne – the antis brilliantly organised by local businessmen, and adept at getting clever posters to go viral on Twitter and Facebook. At the last count, the “Sherborne Says No Thanks Tesco” call  on PetitionBuzz had 3485 signatures (with a further 8000 or more on the written petition, they say). “Bring Tesco to Sherborne” on the same site had 186.

Now Sherborne waits for the planning application to be filed by Tesco. Some people hold on to hopes it may never appear. “They’ve had so much flak, they could gain from saying we’ve listened… But I think the views of the customers aren’t very important to them. It’s all about the City and their market share.” says Peter Neal of the “Keep Sherborne Viable” group. “I find it very difficult to understand why they want to hold onto this plan, when there are so many issues, heritage, traffic , the environment, the existing planning strategy,”

The antis are now raising money – muffin-baking is one tactic – for a fighting fund in case the plan goes to appeal and the lawyers step in. “Tesco throw money at things – they frighten councils who turn down their plans, because these days they can’t afford the appeal process.” Neal has been warned that legal expenses in a  prolonged planning battle could amount to as much as £60,000.

Joanna Blythman has watched many an anti-supermarket uprising over the years. “It’s an impressive campaign, this one, not that there haven’t been others. But this town is one of the jewels in the crown of Britain and the mood is on the turn after the horsemeat scandal. I think it could develop into a historic stand-off.” She’s with Peter Neal in questioning just what Tesco’s plan is. “They’re doing such a good job of becoming the brand everyone loves to hate…. Is it a point of principle with them that they have to have be in every village, on every street corner?  Why doesn’t someone in head office just say, let’s  show we’ve been listening, and drop this one.”

I asked a senior staffer at Tesco head office exactly that question. We spoke just after Tesco had published full page adverts in all the major newspapers, detailing the post-horsemeat steps it intends to take. These were plain and strangely poetic: “We know that all this will only work if we are/Open about what we do./And if you’re not happy, tell us./Seriously./This is it./We are changing.”

The spokesman (I am not allowed to name him) had been down to Sherborne.  “We are listening. We’re going through the consultation process. Lots of people said to me we really want a store here, we’re driving 10 miles round trip to Yeovil and back to do our shopping. The fear of what people think may happen when a store opens never bears out in reality.” But with the sheer level of opposition here, why don’t you just say: these people are not happy, we won’t do this one? Wouldn’t it be a PR win – at a time when you really need one? He considered that, for a moment.“An application has not yet been submitted.

More on the ‘No Sherborne Tesco campaign here

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3 thoughts on “Tesco vs Sherborne – can the big guy afford to blink?

  1. Alice Renton says:

    Well. Good, as usual. I only wish one could think it would have any effect on Tescos. The people who are really to blame, of course, are the local Planning Committees. They do not have to say yes. Lewes has given planning permission to a vastly enlarged Tescos (incorporating chemist, optician etc. One of the latter in the town said to me “There are already five opticians in Lewes. Is this fair?” ) and to an Aldi now built right beside it. How can a wonderful town like Lewes survive? There MUST be money passing to the planners from these predators. Dad getting on well. Terribly vague and forgetful EXCEPT when playing bridge!

    xx M

    On Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 11:51 AM, Alex Rent

    Like

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