Tesco protesters keep up the pressure over 'jinxed' store

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The Independent Online

Tesco faced renewed calls yesterday to abandon a controversial development in a Buckinghamshire commuter-belt town on the anniversary that the site collapsed on to a railway track, narrowly avoiding rush-hour carnage.

To mark the date of the near-disaster, about 80 residents in Gerrards Cross held a one-hour protest against the ill-fated site. The skeletal superstore dominates the town's centre, where work on the eighth Tesco in a five-mile radius has been halted for the past 12 months while the supermarket chain mulls whether to proceed with the project.

The concerns expressed go to the heart of the issues outlined in the competition inquiry into the supermarket sector, which revolve around planning and local market share.

Amid a backdrop of the derelict construction site and a soundtrack of 4x4 drivers tooting support, locals voiced angst about being kept in the dark by Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, who just weeks ago promised to work at being a "good neighbour". On the opposite side of the narrow high street, which threatens to become a traffic bottleneck if the store is built, six Tesco acolytes mounted a rival demonstration.

Most of the protesters cited their frustration at the uncertainty of the town's future and the fear of a second accident if the store, being built on a filled-in railway cutting, ever opens.

Trevor Kent, who describes himself as a "fifth-generation Gerrards Crosser", said: "We don't like Tesco treating us like the rest of the country - with disdain." Graham Hoenes, 63, said: "Most people here think that it's bad news. It just depresses you every time you see this gigantic, mould-ridden building site in the middle of our village."

It is the scale of the project that has so dismayed residents. The "metal dinosaur", as one put it, is of a size normally seen in out-of-town retail parks. Were Tesco to scale back its plans, it would meet with a far warmer reception; locals are excited about a Marks & Spencer Simply Food store opening in the autumn.

Despite residents trotting out the usual fears about independent retailers going to the wall if Tesco does open, not all of the town's shopkeepers are worried. Some, such as Andrew Riddle, of the menswear shop Palmer, are looking forward to the increased footfall it will bring.

Laura Wood, the manager of AA Fisher, the town's only remaining food retailer after Budgens withdrew, said: "For us, it's the uncertainty of not knowing how much money to plough into the business for the future. A smaller Tesco wouldn't be so bad."

Tescohas promised to update residents in August. It insists its hands are tied until it receives a report from Costain, the engineers, which will determine whether the project is viable.

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