Wednesday night brought a bizarre Sedgemoor-organised special meeting to Bridgwater Town Hall, with townspeople eagerly piling inside to witness the latest stage of Tesco’s bid for a Northgate store play out in public.
The meeting’s aim, the assembled Bridgwaterians were told, wasn’t public consultation. Instead, it was ‘to fully inform Sedgemoor’s Development Committee’, the body charged with making the final decision to either accept, refuse or defer Tesco’s application. With Cllr Bob Filmer (Con, Brent Knoll) in the chair, and the rest of his committee listening in the audience, the members of the public were essentially told to keep quiet and butt out.
Council big-wigs were out in force – for the District, Steve Atkinson (soon-to-be-ex Head of Planning), Stuart Martin (Planning Officer), Nick Tait (Strategic Planning), Dave Coles and Dean Nuralli (Environmental Health) were in attendence, and John Elliot and Helen Vittery represented Somerset County Council’s Highways department.
The Tesco contingent included Gareth Hooper (Planning for Tesco) and James Harrison (Development Executive), who had faced a rowdy reception at the town’s last major public meeting last March. This time they were joined by Melanie Chiswell, Tesco’s impressively senior-sounding Corporate Affairs Manager for the South West.
PUBLIC NOT ALLOWED TO SPEAK
The catch, however, was that the public wouldn’t be allowed to speak. Questions had to be submitted in writing beforehand, and would be read out by the Chair, creating the surreal situation where intelligent Bridgwaterians fully capable of speaking for themselves had to sit in silence in the audience while someone else voiced their concerns for them.
Fortunately, what could’ve been a recipe for nearly four hours of sterile tedium actually turned out to be nearly four hours of articulate and exhaustively well-researched questioning, enhanced by interjections from a boisterous public gallery.
Tesco has suggested that it would allow shoppers to park at its proposed store for three hours free, allegedly to encourage them to also use businesses in Bridgwater town centre. Westover ward councillors Brian Smedley and Kathy Pearce questioned this proposal: ‘will this position be guaranteed through either a Section 106 Agreement or a Unilateral Undertaking?’
Tesco’s response was short and to the point: no, there wouldn’t be any such arrangements. The same was true of Tesco’s suggestion it would seek to give what remained of the Brewery Field back to a third party.
The public gallery noisily expressed its disapproval – a Section 106 or a UU are the only two ways Sedgemoor can force Tesco to act, and without either the supermarket’s parking pledge was effectively meaningless.
Rosie and Nick Gibson, Westover residents and Bridgwater Forward supporters, pinned Sedgemoor and Tesco down on the crucial issue of jobs: ‘Reading the Application for Planning Permission form there has been no indication at all of the number of jobs’ that a new Tesco would provide. Earlier in the bidding process, Tesco had suggested it would create ‘450 full and part time jobs …. was this a job carrot like so many others?’
TESCO REPS APOLOGISE FOR ‘OVER-ESTIMATING JOBS FIGURES’
Tesco’s Gareth Hooper replied that there would be 260 full and part time jobs created, and that they predicted an additional 120 would become available as more businesses filled up the other seven retail units included in their proposal for Northgate. Melanie Chiswell apologised on behalf of Tesco for their earlier ‘overestimation’. Embarassingly, Sedgemoor’s Nick Tait had earlier quoted the 450 jobs figure.
Cllr Ian Tucker (Labour, Dunwear) challenged the idea that supermarkets bring benefit to local towns. Referring to his own investigations into how Tiverton and Shepton Mallet have been affected by Tescos, as well as the Asda development in Bridgwater that falsely claimed it would rejuvenate Eastover, Cllr Tucker asked ‘how will Bridgwater be so different so many other towns who host large supermarkets?’
SDC ADMIT ASDA FAILURES ‘VERY POOR PEDESTRIAN ENVIRONMENT’..’NO REGENERATION’
Sedgemoor was unusually frank about the failure of the Asda development. Nick Tait admitted that they initially believed Asda would improve Eastover, but that ‘anecdotally, this hasn’t been the case’ and that the resulting store was poorly connected to the rest of the town due to a’very poor pedestrian environment’. That said, he believed the Tesco development would have a more positive outcome.
Gareth Hooper of Tescos challenged Cllr Tucker’s conclusions about Shepton Mallet, and explained that a study by the University of Southampton had shown a new supermarket had benefitted the town. However, several people in the public gallery explained back that the study he mentioned had actually been funded by Tesco itself, and that its conclusions were therefore strongly suspect at best.
Charles Graham also questioned Sedgemoor’s optimism about Tesco given its experiences with Asda. However, Mr Graham was effectively told off by Sedgemoor’s Nick Tait for suggesting supermarkets engage in ‘unfair’ trading practises.
Gareth Hooper of Tesco admitted Asda was a ‘very poor example of the benefits that can be achieved by this kind of development’.
Tesco was also asked whether it intended to pay Angel Place a sum of money for lost car-parking income. Both Tesco and Steve Atkinson of Sedgemoor bluntly responded in the negative. The message was clear: in the words of Tesco’s James Harrison, the supermarket chain has ‘no relationship with or responsibility to any other shopping centre’.
Generally, the meeting enjoyed a very good showing by Bridgwater faces: Allan Jeffereys, a local resident, questioned Tesco on its lack of recycling facilities at its proposed store.
Dr Peter Cattermole, Chairman of Bridgwater Heritage, quizzed Sedgemoor about whether it felt Tesco’s proposals complied with the Council’s own Core Strategy and national planning guidelines (unsurprisingly they did).
Vague evasive answers
Westover resident Trevor Monaghan questioned the wisdom of introducing a huge superstore into the middle of an already-clogged network of town centre roads given the anticipated rise in traffic resulting from the new reactor at Hinkley Point.
Bridgwater Forward co-chair Dave Chapple also managed to get Sedgemoor’s Nick Tait to admit that the Council had essentially extended the designated town centre zone to include the Northgate site and strengthen Tesco’s case for a store.
Lack of Responsiveness and Accountability
But while the questions were rigorously researched, more often than not they didn’t get the careful answers they deserved. By now we’ve got used to a chronic lack of responsiveness and accountability from a seemingly arrogant District Council.
We’ve also learned to expect vague, evasive answers from Tesco representatives, who constantly divert attention to minor amendments
they’ve made supposedly in response to local concerns – like lowering the height of the store to retain more of a view of St Mary’s church spire – to dodge the more fundamental issue that a clear majority of Bridgwater residents not only don’t want another supermarket, but think a new store would irreversibly damage the town.
Luckily, as the meeting showed, local people know that real democracy has nothing to do with keeping quiet when un-elected council officers tell you to, and instead demands that complacent Councils and massive multinational corporations are properly held to account.
Sedgemoor’s Development Committee will make its final decision on Tesco by February 12th.