Tesco store plan faces court threat

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Tesco faces a potential High Court challenge to its victory in a battle to extend a store in Liverpool if a local pressure group can raise enough funds to mount a legal attack.

The Liverpool branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has until Thursday to lodge an appeal to the supermarket giant's plan to increase the size of its main store in south Liverpool by more than 50 per cent.

The extension has provoked controversy because it encroaches on to two hockey pitches that are part of the University of Liverpool's playing fields. The council's planning committee initially rejected the proposed extension to the Mather Avenue store but the Government's Planning Inspectorate overturned that decision last month after a public inquiry.

Pamela Leadbeater, who chairs the Liverpool CPRE branch, thinks Tesco's victory at the in-quiry was flawed and believes the chain's opponents were "treated unfairly". Tesco switched the planning application for discussion at the last minute, failing to alert local pressure groups which could not then adequately argue their case, she claimed.

"We didn't have a chance to prepare ourselves and did not even see the new documents until day two [of the three-day hearing]. I don't even think the inspector was fully aware of the true factors of the case," Miss Leadbeater said.

She claimed Tesco also made a number of procedural errors, such as failing to complete certain assessments such as an economic viability study or an emissions test.

Local residents have campaigned for two years against the expansion plans for the Allerton store, gaining hope when in September 2004 the council refused to grant planning permission in part because of the threat to the sports playing fields. Tesco later amended its planning application, promising to re-site the hockey pitches, but this has not placated residents.

A spokesman for Tesco said there were residents who "equally feel they could benefit from a larger store. We will continue to talk to the community about plans to build one."

Unless the local CPRE branch can raise significant funds - up to £100,000 - within days, it will have to back down and accept its fate. Miss Leadbeater attacked the planning process as "undemocratic", arguing: "Big business always wins because of the financial restraints local residents face who can't afford High Court fees."

Despite offering consumers one of the cheapest forums for shopping in the UK, Tesco is under fire over its perceived dominance of the retail landscape. Sir Terry Leahy, its Liverpool-born chief executive, likes to argue that the group has a mere 13 per cent of the total retail market, while critics point out that Tesco takes £1 in every £8 spent on the high street.

The chairman of J Sainsbury, Philip Hampton, recently waded into the debate by lobbying the UK's competition authorities about measures they could take to check Tesco's market share.