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A very British insurrection: Totnes residents win battle to keep Costa out amid 'clone town' fears

  • @martin_hickman

The Battle of Totnes is over and the losing side is a multi-national coffee chain.

Costa Coffee has abandoned a campaign to open a café in the determinedly bohemian south Devon market town, despite winning planning permission for a 70-seat store at the foot of its hilly high street.

Its managing director, Chris Rogers, hauled up the white flag today, after visiting the West Country for a meeting with the town's rebellious MP, traders and townsfolk.

Perhaps in retrospect Costa, which has been spreading across the country and now has 1,400 outlets, picked the wrong town.

Mr Rogers admitted as much in his statement ceasing hostilities, saying: "Costa has recognised the strength of feeling in Totnes against national brands and taken into account the specific circumstances of Totnes."

Ever since Costa's plans to take over a vacant health food shop became known in May, indignant residents ran a vigorous 'No to Costa' campaign and gathered a 5,500-signature petition.

Costa insisted its store at 11 Fore Street - scheduled to open from dawn to dusk, 6.30am to 8pm - would "add new vibrancy by complementing the local offering" as well as create 16 full and part-time jobs.

With double the number of outlets of Starbucks, Costa is undisputed king of the £5bn-a-year British coffee market - and usually triumphs against the growing number of protesters who object to its expansion.

In what campaigners saw as a warning to South Hams District Council, its planning application detailed its successful appeals against residents' objections in other towns across the UK.

However campaigners fearful that Costa's arrival would start to turn Totnes into a clone town with identikit high street chains put up a strong fight.

Totnes has four chain shores - Superdrug, WH Smiths, Peacocks and M&Co - but its narrow High Street is packed with independent traders, including 32 non-chain cafes.

Frances Northrop, manager of Transition Town Totnes, a movement aimed at weaning us off our dependence on oil, told the Independent in August: "Totnes has got lots of heart and soul, which is down to the character of the buildings, the businesses and the people.

"Our fear is not just coffee shops, but Tesco Metro will come in - they follow each other."

On 1 August, when the planning committee of South Hams District Council met 140 placard-wielding protesters marched through the town.

Despite receiving only 9 letters of support for the application, and 260 letters of objection, planning officers recommended the return of an empty unit to use  and councillors voted by 17 to 6 in Costa' flavour. Four of the councillors opposing Costa represented Totnes and the surrounding area.

The battle for the soul of a medieval town known for its abundance of writers, therapists and herbalists was not over. With the support of their Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston, townsfolk persuaded Mr Rogers to visit in late August.

Announcing his decision today, Mr Rogers said: "Totnes is a town with a long and proud history of independent retailers with one of the lowest percentages of branded stores of any town of its size in the UK, very few empty shop fronts, as well as a very high proportion of places selling coffee."

In a statement posted on the Notocosta.co.uk website, campaigners said: "We are impressed Costa has taken the time to understand our town, its economy and the 5,700 people who signed the petition asking Costa to reconsider. This is a major milestone for local communities and is a day when the value of localism comes into its own, albeit belatedly..."

Dr Wollaston - making an oblique reference to the tax position of Costa' rival Starbucks - praised Costa, adding:

"I recognise that this is a successful British business playing fair by paying its full share of tax, sourcing much of its milk from Devon and engaging too on the important issue of fairness to farmers."

She just felt that Totnes was not quite right for multi-national soy lattes.