Planning: Historic town set for battle of Tesco

Rising concern over superstores' impact on small towns as thousands of independent retailers close every year
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The Independent Online
THE SHOPKEEPERS of Beverley are calling it Round One. As they heard that planners had thrown out Tesco's proposed supermarket in their medieval market town, they were readying themselves for Round Two.

"There's bound to be an appeal by Tesco's. They are not the sort to run away," said John Dibb, owner of the Fresh and Good fruit and veg shop.

He and others in the East Yorkshire town have for months been urging people to say No to Tesco, on banners strung across the streets and posters in windows of the many traditional and specialist shops.

"Beverley is unique in this area. It's like a mini York or a mini Norwich. Tesco's would be just a brick lump on the edge of the town centre which would snuff the life out of the place," said Mr Dibb.

It's a familiar argument - one that has been heard acrossBritain over the past 10 years. Mr Dibb believes that building a supermarket with a retail area of 54,900sq ft and spaces for 478 cars on the site of the 1,300-year-old cattle market would draw trade out of the heart of Beverley, ultimately killing it.

"It's false to think the supermarket will attract more people to the town. People won't be bothered after they've shopped at the supermarket."

Nick Render, owner of a traditional shoe-repair shop in Beverley for 13 years, agreed. "I came here because it was a traditional market town and it promised a good trade, but now the place is losing that identity as more and more multiples move in. I am already losing money with the introduction of paid parking. I told my partner if another supermarket opens here I would move out."

A generation ago, there were 40,000 independent retailers in Britain; now there are just 10,000. The superstores that have sprung up on the fringes of towns and on sites farther afield over the past two decades have played a large part in that decline.

Opponents say that the superstores - there are now more than 1,000 of them around Britain - have torn the hearts out of traditional market towns, forcing small shops to close and ruining social life in rural communities.

Grocers are closing at a rate of 800 a year; butcher shops at a rate of 1,000. And as the large food retailers diversify to offer other services, post offices, drycleaners, pharmacies and newsagents are suffering too.

The impact was spelt out in a report commissioned by the Government which was published in September. The report, by the consultancy CB Hillier Parker, found that superstores reduce trade in local shops by up to 50 per cent.

It is government policy to discourage the building of more out-of-town shopping complexes, but decisions on whether to grant planning permission are made by local authorities in the first instance.

The recent report said that, contrary to the claims of retailers, such developments do not boost local employment, as on average more jobs are lost in the town centres than are created in the new stores. Nor do they "claw back" trade from more distant shopping complexes, it said.

The authors recommended that planning regulations be tightened and that permission for superstores be granted only when there is a genuine need.

The food retail chains are increasingly targeting smaller towns, which are least able to digest the impact. In Cumbria, for instance, the supermarket Booths has won planning permission for a 21,000sq ft development on the edge of the picturesque town of Kirkby Lonsdale, which has a population of only 1,600.

It is not only out-of-town superstores that kill town centres. Those on the edge of towns and even in the centres damage the traditional high street.

Traffic jams can be a by-product of supermarkets. In Newbury, Berkshire, the congestion that led to the construction of the controversial bypass is blamed on two out-of-town supermarkets whose car-borne customers clogged the roads leading to them.

Numerous disputes are looming around the UK. In Hexham, Northumberland,for instance, Safeway wants to build a 9,000sq ft development on the edge of town. Traders fear it would pull shoppers away from the historic town centre because it would be located on the other side of a busy main road.

Some towns are fighting back. In Leominster, near Hereford, local traders have launched a loyalty card - used to obtain gifts and discounts - which they say has helped to win back customers from a Safeway store. Thirty- five shops in the centre had closed.

Meanwhile, the shopkeepers of Beverley await their fate. Tesco said it was "highly likely" that it would appeal to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Secretary, against the decision of East Riding Council planning committee.

The benefits to the council, at least, are obvious. The deal would have made the local authority pounds 7.5m on the sale of land.