Tesco drops plan for Sherborne store after campaign

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Chris Bush

Campaigners in the Dorset town of Sherborne are celebrating, after Tesco announced on its website that it would not be opening a new store in the town. After Tesco first revealed plans to open on the site of a former hotel, locals had run a huge 'No Thanks Tesco' campaign, and collected 11,000 signatures on their petition (not bad for a town with a population of 9,523).

So how did the locals fight the supermarket, and what answers does this town have as to how to hold off the march of the supermarkets?


The campaign

The campaign included not just the petition (which is thought to be the largest ever opposing a supermarket), but also a day of action in February, when local shops were boarded up for an hour to demonstrate what campaigners thought would happen after the arrival of Tesco, and protesters marched through the town with local celebrity Valerie Singleton to tackle Tesco representatives.

They also ran an online protest, with a campaign video and song, and a publicity drive that meant they have hardly been out of the local and national press since the end of January when the campaign was launched.

Not opening

In the end, Tesco said the decision had nothing to do with the campaign, but was a planning issue. In a blog on the company website, UK managing director Chris Bush, said: "We've held meetings in the town, talked to supporters and opponents, discussed with the Council and this week we have concluded it won't work."

"Protestors will celebrate, but in the end it was planning, not the protest, which drove this conclusion. Road access to the store site proved too difficult and expensive to resolve, the plan was not workable, so we did not submit an application."

Does the town hold the answer?

However, he also offered hope to towns which are fighting the opening of a supermarket. He said: "While the Sherborne protest was not the deciding factor, we did listen to it. When we say we consult communities, we mean it. We do it because successful stores serve their communities well and to do that, we need to understand the community well."

We have seen other examples of retailers bowing to local opinion. In October last year, Costa Coffee was given planning permission to open in Totnes, but decided against it when three quarters of the population signed a petition saying they would boycott the store.

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Do you want a Tesco?

However, before you start making placards, it's worth asking whether the town really opposes a chain store. Bush was quite clear that Tesco wouldn't be swayed by a campaign if it didn't represent the attitude of the majority of the community.

He used the example of Sheringham, in which residents ran a huge campaign over 14 years, but Tesco continued fighting and won the right to open in 2010. He said that despite the campaign, a referendum in the town showed that the majority of people wanted a Tesco.

He said that the silent majority were often those on the lowest incomes who had the most to gain from the new jobs and lower prices of a supermarket, but who tended to be less vocal than those with vested interests in the status quo.

Bush also argued that supermarkets were not necessarily the cause of a declining high street. He said that it was down to a mix of factors, ranging from parking to changing lifestyles and rents to demographic change.

He referred to research from Southampton University which looked at six market towns and showed that opening a supermarket on the fringes of town brought more business to the high street - although he didn't mention that the research was commissioned by Tesco.

He called for people to spend less time blaming supermarkets and more time solving local reasons for the failure of the high street, and said Tesco would work with anyone who wanted to tackle that challenge.

But what do you think? Is Tesco destroying high streets, or can it bring people back to a town that has been deserted by internet shoppers? Let us know in the comments.

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