Tesco 'riding roughshod' over planning rules, MPs are told

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The Independent Online

A flood of claims about Tesco riding roughshod over local planning authorities has delayed the publication of a report by MPs into the future of the high street.

Independent retailers, consumers and lobby groups have bombarded the cross-party committee of MPs conducting the inquiry into the retail landscape in 2015 with additional evidence about instances when Tesco has breached its planning consent.

Tesco sparked the outcry by telling an oral hearing last month that the time it overstepped its planning permission in Stockport - by building its store 20 per cent bigger than the planning consent had decreed - was a "one-off".

Jim Dowd, the Labour MP for Lewisham West, in London, who is leading the inquiry, has written to Gerry Sutcliffe, the Competition minister, highlighting the fresh concerns.

Mr Dowd and the rest of the All-Party Small Shops Group (APPSSG) are still sifting through their fresh letter-bag and do not expect to release their report until late January, more than one month after it was set to be published.

The issues raised by the bulging letter-bag fly in the face of Tesco's protestations to MPs that it "would not want to repeat" the Stockport situation.

Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco's corporate and legal affairs director, told the hearing that the group had been "overzealous" in its plans to build the store, which is in a regeneration area.

She admitted, "we probably did not do the right thing", adding: "The people who were fitting out the store decided that they needed more space, mainly for back room operation, and so therefore built the store bigger than the original planning permission. I do not know quite why, but they did."

Stockport Council initially turned a blind eye to the new store - a 120,000 sq ft Tesco Extra which opened for business more than a year ago - but after a heated local campaign Tesco was eventually forced into resubmitting its application earlier this week.

A spokesman for Tesco defended the group's stance. "As far as we know it is a one-off.

"If there is other evidence we'd like to see it."

Although the framework of the investigation is much broader than just Tesco, the supermarket giant, which takes £1 of every £8 spend on the high street, has dominated the inquiry. Much of the new evidence relates to Tesco and includes more examples of where the group has used money-off voucher schemes to woo shoppers into its stores and away from local retailers. Again this contradicts evidence given by Ms Neville-Rolfe to the hearing when she said an earlier instance was another "once-off".

Another letter concerns the controversy over Tesco's plans for a store in Liverpool, where it purchased playing fields from the university to gain access to a greenfield site - in contravention of the city's development plan. A spokesman for the inquiry said MPs were attempting to verify the fresh evidence, hence the delay. The group had hoped to report next week, on 13 December.

With planning permission for new sites often very hard to achieve, much of Tesco's expansion plans depend on the group expanding its existing stores. Tesco has something of a history of trying to get away with building larger stores. In Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire - where its plans to build a store over a railway cutting are in disarray after the supporting railway tunnel collapsed - the group sought permission to upgrade its already controversial large store into a superstore. An unfavourable Highways report forced it to withdraw the application because it was running out of time to start building. Peter Hardy, leader of the South Bucks District Council, which tuned down Tesco's original application, said: "The time it would have taken them to appeal would have delayed them building the store, which is ironic really."

The future of the unpopular town centre store - nine out of 10 residents did not want it according to a local referendum - still hangs in the balance while the Government assesses whether the project is too risky to go ahead.

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