Convenience store veto proves setback for Tesco's expansion

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The Independent Online

A north London council has helped fuel the anti-Tesco backlash by blocking permission for a convenience store on the grounds it would be detrimental to nearby town centres.

Barnet Council temporarily checked Tesco's ambitions to double its Express store estate across the UK by refusing to allow it to open a shop in Finchley.

Melvin Cohen, a Barnet councillor, said: "To have allowed this application to proceed would have set a precedent to other food retailers and could have encouraged the spread of clone towns which we do not want to see in Barnet."

The application, made in October, was blocked on 21 December because the council felt another Tesco Express would have a "significantly greater harmful impact on the vitality and viability of nearby town centres" than the existing use. The proposed site in Ballards Lane used to be a carpet warehouse.

Andrew Simms, the policy director at the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank, said the verdict showed "chutzpah" on the part of the local planning authority given "the asymmetry of resources it could bring to bear should the ruling be contested". He added: "It's symbolic they felt prepared to stand up and challenge Tesco on one of these outlets. It seems to betoken an increasing boldness on the part of local authorities."

Government planning policy, updated in March, is aimed at protecting town centres by encouraging development within towns, not outside them. A source within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which handles planning, said Planning Policy Statement 6 gave local authorities "a good planning tool to rejuvenate town centres".

It was the first time Barnet had used the new guidelines to reject an application to open a convenience store, although Tesco pointed to numerous examples where its plans had been checked on similar grounds. Councils in Colchester, Leeds and Wandsworth, south-west London, are believed to have cited similar concerns when blocking applications for convenience stores, a Tesco spokeswoman said.

She added: "It is a shame because we believe local people would have benefited from a better range of fresh food and lower prices." The supermarket group has not yet decided whether to contest the decision.

Mr Cohen said the council felt the new Tesco store would have had a "detrimental impact" on nearby town centres in Finchley Church End and North Finchley. The council said Tesco had failed to demonstrate a need for retail development at Ballards Lane or to show it had looked hard enough for an alternative town-centre site.

A spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth said: "It was a strong decision for the council to talk about the high street being important for the community."

Tesco and J Sainsbury have moved aggressively to expand their convenience store estates after struggling to find new sites for superstores. Tesco is increasingly seeking to expand existing stores.