Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, is accused today of "bypassing the democratic planning process" and bullying local authorities in its relentless hunger for new space.
An analysis of 200 planning disputes by Friends of the Earth, an environmental pressure group, argued that Tesco is the worst culprit of a phenomenon that is threatening the future of the UK's high streets.
Almost two in every three new stores are still being built outside town centres almost 10 years after the introduction of a blueprint to stop that happening. Tesco is on track to triple the number of its biggest Extra hypermarket stores in the next 10 years to 300 and double its convenience stores to 1,200 unless councils clamp down on the group's "strong-arm" expansion tactics, the pressure group says.
The report finds there is a growing trend of some supermarket groups flouting planning restrictions, backing recent claims made to an MPs' inquiry into the retail landscape in 2015. It calls for an overhaul of planning legislation to remove the existing bias it says favours superstores over local shops.
FoE's analysis suggests some supermarket groups are getting their own way because councils are afraid of being bankrupted by the costs of an appeal. They are also too easily swayed by so-called "planning gains", which allow supermarkets to offer to build local amenities in return for permission; and are unable to withstand years of concerted lobbying from companies with immense resources.
Robin Webster, a supermarket campaigner at FoE, said: "The system is stacked against local authorities. The planning process is structured to help supermarkets get their planning permission. Examples of where Tesco has ignored terms of their planning consent, such as in Stockport, are not just isolated incidents but a pattern."
In Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Tesco built a bulk storage facility without planning permission, while in Gunness, Lincolnshire, it has ignored restrictions banning it from selling more than 25 per cent non-food goods since it opened the store in 2001, FoE says.
Tesco said the number of disputes shows the planning authorities are not a pushover. A spokesman said: "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."
There is a growing groundswell against Tesco, which will report another strong increase in UK sales tomorrow. Spurred by fears that the group has become too powerful, multiple pressure groups have formed a coalition, Breaking the Armlock, aimed at checking the company's ambitions to take even more than one in every eight pounds spent on the high street. Local campaigners, such as Pam Leadbeater, chair of the Liverpool branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have even threatened legal action against the group, although acknowledge that they would struggle to raise the necessary funds.
The FoE report will stoke the debate over whether supermarket groups are too powerful. The competition watchdog has until April to decide whether to recommend another inquiry into the sector. This month, a cross-party committee of MPs will reveal their verdict on the future of Britain's high streets, which is bound to make grim reading for the tens of thousands of independent shops under threat from the expansion of the four major supermarket chains.
"Tesco Towns" have sprung up all over the country, the FoE report says. In Inverness, the retailer controls 51 per cent of the market yet is still looking to build a fourth store.
Asda, which is owned by the US's Wal-Mart, also comes in for criticism, especially for its exploitation of a planning loophole to use mezzanine levels to boost its total floorspace. In another instance, FoE's research shows that Asda bypassed the planning process to strike an agreement with planning officials in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire that went against previous restrictions the council had sought to impose.
The FoE report criticises the planning system for failing to deliver real diversity and choice, pointing out that the latest guidance, Planning Policy Statement 6, favours big stores at the expense of smaller ones. To redress the balance, FoE wants planning rules to introduce a 3,000 sq m (27,000 sq ft) cap on net retail floor space in retail outlets. It also wants the loophole that allows mezzanine floors to be built without planning permission to be closed.
The report attacks the land bank of sites built up by Tesco, which it says puts the chain in an influential position. Reports have suggested the group is sitting on 4.5m sq ft of land - 185 sites - more than the combined might of Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons put together. It says the practice creates a barrier for local councils that want to develop housing or other facilities.
"Supermarkets like Tesco are very clearly exercising their muscle in the planning system," says Ms Webster. "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."
The Tesco behemoth strides across the country
* In Inverness, the retailer controls 51 per cent of the market yet is still looking to build a fourth store.
* In Portwood, Stockport, Tesco built a Tesco Extra hypermarket which failed to comply with planning conditions. At 120,000 sq ft, the store was 20 per cent larger than the size limit that Stockport Borough Council had imposed on it when it granted planning permission.
* In Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Tesco built a bulk storage facility without planning permission, prompting a councillor on the local borough council to remark that "it seems to me that the planning authority is Tesco and not the council".
* In The Wirral, Merseyside, Tesco was convicted of repeatedly breaking conditions that had been imposed on it by its planning permission decision notice concerning delivery vehicles. Tesco was fined a total of £1,800, which prompted a councillor to suggest that "this kind of fine won't touch them" and so was not a strong enough message.
* In Bangor, Gwynedd, in September 2005 Tesco opposed an application by Asda for a store in the town centre, on the basis that it would damage the town centre by competing with local shops. Two months later, Tesco opened its own store in Bangor, a hypermarket outside the town.
Source: Friends of the Earth, "Supermarkets Call The Shots"Reuse content