Marlow defies supermarket sweep of Middle England

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The well-heeled residents of Marlow make unlikely activists against globalisation and corporate greed.

But they have found themselves at the centre of a battle against the middle- class shopper's supermarket of choice, Waitrose, in a campaign that reflects the public's growing disenchantment with the dominance of big superstores on the high street.

They have launched a massive campaign to stop the firm from building a 25,000 square-foot store in the heart of the Buckinghamshire town's Georgian conservation area. Locals have accused Waitrose of threatening the beauty of the historic town and of "bully boy" tactics which have included the threat of forcing out a family run funeral business that has been in Marlow since 1925.

Marlow is one of the wealthiest towns in Britain and is full of small, independent bakers, bookshops and retailers.

Waitrose, which controls 3.7 per cent of the supermarket sector, already has a small single-level store in the town, on a street of listed Georgian frontages. Now it wants to more than double its existing premises and build a three-storey supermarket with an underground car park and a café.

It has already been turned down for planning permission once, but has re-submitted its application. Wycombe District Council is due to make a decision in September. But the plans are being stymied by the refusal of the Sawyer Funeral Service to sell their property. The small, family run business operates from a site Waitrose needs for the development.

Campaigners have seen documents that show the Local Planning Authority would be "disposed to use their statutory powers of compulsory acquisition for the purposes of urban regeneration" and claim that, in meetings, Waitrose has made it clear that it would be prepared to apply for a compulsory purchase order of the Sawyer's business.

Marjorie Sawyer, 84, lives in a flat above the business, which is now run by her daughter, Anne Howlett.

A poster signed by the women and displayed in the window says: "We are once again facing the unwelcome prospect of a renewed threat to our business as the supermarket giant Waitrose has submitted revised plans to the council. It is hard enough keeping a small business going in the best of times, but it is that much harder when being harassed by a covetous multi-national company."

They have pledged to remain "undaunted" by the pressure to sell their site.

Campaigners found a little-known rule in the Local Government Act which states that if 10 residents sign a motion, the council must hold a parish referendum on an issue. They used the law to trigger a referendum on whether a compulsory purchase order (CPO) should be executed on the Sawyer's property.

Despite having only one polling station, voting hours of 6pm and 9pm and no official publicity, 2,214 of the 10,734 eligible population turned out on the issue, with 94 per cent voting against the prospect of a CPO.

Mike Post, a retired airline pilot and one of the chief campaigners, said: "It was amazing; there was such strong feeling about this and even general elections don't get that degree of enthusiasm. We are not against business coming into Marlow and we are certainly not against Waitrose, but what we object to is the sheer size and style of the proposal.

"It is totally out of keeping with the rest of the town and it will wreck local businesses because people will simply drive into the underground car park, get everything they need in the store and then leave."

A study of a recent Waitrose development in nearby Wallingford found that 40 per cent of local businesses saw their takings decline after the store opened.

Jo Baybrooke, the president of the town's Chamber of Commerce, said: "The support for the campaign has been really quite extraordinary. People in Marlow are very much Waitrose-type customers and don't tend to get up in arms about things, but this is different. Waitrose are not listening to local residents. I used to think they were better than other supermarkets on things like this, but they are just bullies."

An estimated 200 campaigns are being conducted against developments by supermarkets. Guy Rubin, of the New Economics Foundation, which campaigns against "Clone Towns", said: "Well-organised local campaigns really can make a difference."

A spokeswoman for Waitrose said: "Waitrose believes that the proposed food shop would provide a better shopping experience for local people."