Supermarket giants accused of trampling the planning system

Tesco and other supermarket giants have been accused of abusing the planning system to ensure their expansion, often at the expense of other developments such as social housing and community facilities.

Research from pressure group Friends of the Earth claims that the top supermarket retailers have become too powerful and can unfairly influence planning procedures by lobbying councils, planning committees and the general public.

While not technically illegal, Friends of the Earth claim that these tactics give an unfair advantage to the large retailers, dramatically altering the look and feel of high streets and town centres.

The research cites evidence from 200 planning disputes around the country and reveals that:
  • Supermarkets successfully lobby local authorities to alter local plans, allocating more sites for retail;
  • Supermarkets ignore the planning system in pushing ahead with developments;
  • Supermarkets bypass the planning system by entering into separate legal agreements with councils;
  • Supermarkets use "planning gain" to offer local authorities valuable facilities including car parks and affordable housing to help gain planning permission.
  • Supermarkets buy up land which local councils want for the development of housing or other facilities. Tesco, for example, owns 185 empty sites around the country.

    The research says that some councillors have admitted to being pressured into accepting supermarket planning applications because of concerns over costs of appeal.

    Robin Webster, Friends of the Earth Supermarket Campaigner said: "Supermarkets like Tesco are very clearly exercising their muscle in the planning system. They have such vast resources that local councils are not really on an equal footing when it comes to negotiations. It can be very difficult for them to refuse. And local people have virtually no say at all."

    A Tesco spokesperson, however, denied that the planning system was being abused.

    "The fact that there are so many disputes between all retailers and local authorities just goes to show that the planning system is slow and complex and not a push over as some people allege."

    "The important thing is that developers and planners work together to find a solution that benefits the local community and here Tesco has a good track record."

    "A new Tesco store brings a better shopping experience for customers as well as new jobs and in many cases investment in affordable housing, transport and other public facilities," the spokesperson said.

    Friends of the Earth, though, claim that this "working together" has often involved extensive PR and lobbying to get their own way. Tactics such as writing to local councillors at their home address, setting up websites to promote proposed stores and using celebrities and charity donations to gain public support have all been found, the report says.

    In Milton Keynes, Asda successfully obtained planning permission for the country's biggest out-of-town store after providing funding for a new stadium for Milton Keynes Dons Football Club. Friends of the Earth says that local residents were leafleted ahead of the planning application with scare tactic warnings that if the stadium didn't go ahead, Wimbledon Football Club (who use the grounds) would have no ground of their own.

    It also cites the dangerous monopoly that single retailers can exert over towns. In Inverness, for example, Tesco attracts 51% of all food sales, but is looking to grow this figure with an application to build a fourth store.

    "Given the very genuine concerns about the impact of supermarkets on our high street, on our farmers and on consumer choice, this raises important questions about how decisions are being made about the future of our communities," Robin Webster said. "Planning legislation desperately needs to be strengthened and the Competition Commission must look again at the power exercised by supermarket chains."

    David Hopkins

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