Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

'This town has been sold to Tesco'

Are towns built by the UK's leading supermarket the future of urban development?

Imagine living in a Tesco house, sending your child to a Tesco school, swimming in a Tesco pool and, of course, shopping at the local Tesco superstore. According to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), the government's adviser on architecture and design, this collective monopoly is not an imaginary dystopia. "Tesco Towns" on this model are already being planned across the UK, from Inverness in Scotland to Seaton in Devon.

While the economic downturn has hit many parts of the development industry hard, Tesco recorded profits of nearly £3.4bn last year. Its plans for expansion are reflected by a growing tide of what are described as "supermarket-led mixed-use development proposals" – entire districts of homes, schools and public places built by the company.

Cabe is aware of plans for 3,656 new Tesco homes, an increase of 1,300% on the 283 homes built by the supermarket giant between 1996 and 2009. This huge rise – which represents only nine new schemes – is a fraction of the total planned, as Cabe does not see every scheme. Indeed, Tesco recently announced it aims to ramp up its superstore expansion by 40%, largely as a result of the mixed-use development.

Yet when house building is at its lowest level since 1923, more than 4.5 million people are on waiting lists for social housing and the number of families in temporary accommodation are up by a third in the last decade, shouldn't we welcome anyone building new homes, especially when a percentage will be earmarked as affordable housing?

Sir John Sorrell, the outgoing chair of Cabe, however, questions the quality of the proposed developments. "Retailers don't just want to build a new supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing and shopping streets," he warned in his valedictory speech at the end of last year. "Our concern is not only the quality of this kind of development – which is generally very poor – but the way in which architecture and places are created in the image of the retailer."

In Bromley-by-Bow, east London, a Tesco superstore, shops, primary school and hundreds of homes are planned. In Trafford, Manchester, a 168,000 sq ft Tesco will dominate a 50-acre site. Love Lane, Woolwich, and the Streatham Hub development, both in south London, and Queen's Square in West Bromwich are all home to similar proposed Tesco developments that are in partnership with the local authority. And in Seaton, a small seaside town in east Devon, a superstore, hundreds of homes and a hotel recently received planning permission.

Sandra Semple, the mayor of Seaton, is one of eight independent councillors elected on a platform opposing the proposals. Seaton, she says, is a traditional seaside town of 7,500 people on a World Heritage coast. "It's an old-fashioned town on a gorgeous bay, with nothing but individual shops, and no chainstores. Every other store is an individual trader," she says.

She points out that there are already 15 Tescos within 25 miles of Seaton, and says: "The town has always been against this, but the Tory-run district council completely refused to hear our arguments and says Tesco is the only company capable of regenerating our town. This will be an entire place. It's about 20 hectares – an enormous piece of land.

"This town has been sold to Tesco. We are not at the moment a 'Tesco Town', but this will make us one. We've lost our individuality, our identity – the very things that make this place special."

The irony is that there is little evidence that the superstores themselves want to create entire communities. Instead, policy is pushing them in that direction, with local authorities prepared to grant permission for superstores they may have previously refused, as long as they are accompanied by the sweetener of housing, schools and sports facilities, which the councils don't have the funds to provide.

This is what happened in Trafford in March, when a 168,000 sq ft store and accompanying development was granted planning permission, although an application for an 89,000 sq ft store on the same site was refused in 2006. The difference is that this time the redevelopment of Lancashire county cricket club is part of the scheme.

Friends of the Earth says the council's desire to develop the cricket ground "has been used as an excuse to back a superstore development which would otherwise be ruled out for its unacceptable negative impact".

It's a similar story in St Helens, Greater Merseyside, where Tesco is building a stadium for St Helens rugby league club, but the new superstore and massive car park will dominate, relegating the stadium to round the back of the site.

Cabe has attacked Tesco's plans, in partnership with the Thames Gateway Development Corporation, for a new district centre, including hundreds of homes and a school, in Bromley-by-Bow, pointing out that the housing overlooks either the motorway or the superstore, and that Tesco lorries heading for the servicing entrance would cut across the children's route to the primary school.

In this instance, Tesco has gone back to the drawing board, but Cabe is critical that a new district centre should be created on the site at all. Hans van der Heijden, a Dutch architect who also works in Britain, explains why: "It is slightly absurd to make private enterprises responsible for things that are, in the end, public. The interesting comparison is with other private enterprises that created places such as the garden cities, but in those instances there was an element of charity at work related to some form of emancipation and public interest. That seems to be absent here. It's a money machine."

How has this absurd approach to development – an anathema in mainland Europe – been allowed to take root? One reason is the bartering culture that developed between councils and developers as a result of the introduction of "planning gain" – or section 106, as it is known – by the Conservatives in the early 1990s. Since then, it has been customary for local authorities to negotiate with developers over the amount of community infrastructure they are willing to provide to accompany a development, including affordable housing, new roads and sports facilities.

For supermarkets wishing to build very large stores in towns and cities, offering such infrastructure, including schools, has seemed like a natural extension of this policy.

Another key factor is changes to planning policy made in 2004, when the benchmark test that a new development should be in line with "public benefit" was quietly dropped in favour of "economic benefit".

The Conservatives have voiced unease about Tesco Towns. Bob Neill, shadow minister for local government and planning, says: "I am concerned that the rise of so-called supermarket towns will lead to developments where small retailers have no place or face uncompetitive rents. Planning rules must be amended to allow councils to take into account the benefits of greater competition and the need to protect small business."

The party has pledged to introduce greater local participation in planning through its "open source" proposals if it wins tomorrow's general election.

But Neil Sinden, director of policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says the aspiration to return planning decisions to the local level is in contrast to the opening section of the Conservative manifesto, which emphasises that the planning system is a barrier to economic development. With the Tory planning proposals also including financial incentives for councils to provide more housing and development, Sinden believes they are unlikely to halt the onward march of Tesco Towns.

It is possible that Liberal Democrat plans for a third-party right of appeal for local interest groups would support struggles in places such as Seaton, but the detail is unavailable, while Labour is wholly behind the current approach, confirming that it allows councils to generate growth.

Sinden fears that, whatever the outcome of the election, Tesco Towns are the face of future urban development: "I don't see this going away. It's not featuring in any of the parties' thinking when it comes to reform of the planning system."

What strikes him is that although there is "huge public engagement", in policy terms "it's an issue which at the moment is being swept under the carpet".

Semple, who challenged the local authority head on, felt that every effort was made to muzzle her. "A regeneration board was set up, and I was one of the members, but I was told that my presence was no longer desired because I had the wrong attitude. I was asked to resign."

Tesco denies that its developments are poor quality and that the scale of development is new. A spokesman for the company says Tesco has been providing much-needed mixed use development since 1997 in deprived areas. "These are urban areas which have not received investment for a number of years. We are willing to invest, and that kind of investment has to be applauded and welcomed. We're looking at providing more than 2,000 jobs in these areas that can benefit the community for years to come. He adds: "Councils are very welcoming because we are bringing in jobs and investment."

• Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first-century City, published by Penguin, £9.99. To order a copy for £8.99, including UK mainland p&p, go to or call 0330 333 6846. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

No Soup for you

Don't be the product, buy the product!

YES, I want to SOUP ●UP for ...