How Vodafone `held a town to ransom'

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DEPENDING ON your point of view, the pleasant market town of Newbury has either spawned an environmental monster or been blessed by a community angel. Earlier this week, the multinational mobile phone company Vodafone, now a demanding teenager, turned a weapon on the town where it grew up and demanded its own way. It got it.

West Berkshire Council gave the company unique planning permission to build a massive new world headquarters on a pleasant wheatfield outside the town's carefully prepared local plan. The issue, on the face of it a local planning dispute, has raised questions across the country about the financial muscle of big business, the resilience of council planners and the Government's willingness to preserve greenfield sites.

The weapon Vodafone wielded with such dexterity was the threat of pulling up stumps and leaving town, taking with it 3,000 jobs and the pounds 100m it pumps into the community each year. Despite having too few workers available to fill the vacant jobs in Berkshire's booming "silicon valley", councillors buckled for fear of losing the area's almost perfect 1.2 per cent unemployment record.

The Vodafone director Mike Calder, naturally, disagrees with accusations of bullying, insisting that the company is a benefactor to the town, which it believes to be its "heart and soul". He said it did not want to let down the local people it employed.

Vodafone, started in 1981 as a subsidiary of Racal Electronics with "two men and a dog", now employs 3,000 people - a figure that will rise by almost 50 per cent over the next few years after its acquisition of the United States company AirTouch. But it is scattered across 57 properties. Two years ago the company decided that having a corporate headquarters squashed next to an Indian restaurant did not befit its status and set its sights on a field north of the town.

The tranquil site with its public footpath disappearing into the grain has since become a planning battleground. Adrian Foster-Fletcher, a campaigner for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, has vociferously opposed the planning application for 50,000 square feet of space across seven linked buildings. He says it will look like 500 four-bedroom houses packed together, pointing out that 45 per cent of the company staff do not even live locally.

He said the field "is like a green lung to people who live around here. Newbury has practically no unemployed so why do we need them? They have put a gun to the council's head and bullied them. I am not the first person to say that."

The knock-on effect of the development will be considerable. Some 37 buildings will be vacated in town, freeing space for new businesses - whose employees, as well as the new Vodafone staff, will need extra housing.

Jim Sherry, head of planning and transport strategy at the Liberal Democrat council, says he has had to negotiate between varying government demands: "I have had to try and balance these two policies of maintaining a sustainable economy and a regard for the environment."

He originally recommended turning down the application, for three reasons. Vodafone has satisfied two of them: it agreed to a pounds 10m green transport scheme to discourage employees from driving to work, and said it would commit itself to at least 10 years on the site at a cost of pounds 15m. It refused to donate pounds 5m towards local housing, saying this would be interpreted as a bribe.

Stella Manzie, chief executive of West Berkshire Council, said yesterday: "Don't get the impression they have got away scot-free - they are going to have to make a massive cultural change. The economic significance was enormous. We did believe it would harm the economy if they left."

She said the fact that Vodafone was home-grown and felt a duty to encourage local businesses had influenced the decision: "A company like Microsoft would not even have got to first base. But because Vodafone started here with two men and a dog we had to keep that in mind."

The fact is that Vodafone pumps huge sums into the local economy. The rugby club receives generous donations and every charity and school fair can expect a cheque. Newbury decided it could not offend such a generous employer. But to campaigners the issue remains: if you can buy a town as prosperous as Newbury, where does that leave the environmental lobby?

The plan now goes before the Department for the Environment. Those who believe the development would turn West Berkshire into a "building site" are hoping for a public inquiry.