Villagers' McDonald's protest may force new law on pubs

On the face of it, the residents of a suburban Surrey village make unlikely eco-warriors, but their victory over one of the world's biggest fast-food conglomerates could have national implications. Not only have they seen off plans by McDonald's to open a branch in the middle of their community, their record-breaking protest also looks likely to force a change in the law.

The campaign at Hinchley Wood, Esher, may not have received the degree of national publicity that some other problems have caused McDonald's, but it has already lasted longer than the celebrated "McLibel" trial at the High Court and is expected to prove far more damaging to the fast food chain.

Yesterday, a delegation of residents from Hinchley Wood and their MP, Ian Taylor, presented a proposal for wide-ranging changes in the planning laws to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR). The proposal has already received the tacit backing of ministry officials.

When McDonald's bought the village's only pub, planners saw no reason for objecting to a new restaurant. The pub had little to commend it other than the fact that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa had dropped in for a pint in 1997, when their flight home was delayed by an IRA bomb scare.

However the McDonald's team seriously underestimated the local people, who immediately formed a resistance campaign: Residents Against McDonald's (Ram). The struggle that followed included what is believed to be the longest protest occupation of a site, over 500 days, endless appeal hearings and a bitter public confrontation which, it is alleged, spilt into violence.

Under the A3 class (Food and Drink) of the Town & Country Planning Order, McDonald's did not need permission to turn the Hinchley Wood, an established pub and restaurant, into one of their outlets as no "change of use" was involved. The villagers complained that neither the brewery nor McDonald's had consulted them about the changeover, which would lead to a huge increase in the volume of traffic.

McDonald's did however, need planning permission to widen the access road to the pub car park, considered essential for the smooth flow of customers. Ram saw its chance to block the project and launched the planning actions which were to end in victory.

At the same time, volunteers kept up a vigil in two caravans in the pub car park. For a while they were joined by the E-team, a "flying squad" of veteran ecological activists, to help block construction workers getting on the site. But Ram's real strength lay not in the "Swampy brigade", but expertise within the middle-class community, which included lawyers, planners, statisticians and business people.

The residents have now proposed to the DETR and the Greater London Assembly a reform of planning laws that differentiates between pubs, restaurants and take-aways and would require approval for any change of use. Ram wrote to every local authority in England and received 61 per cent support for the proposal.

The DETR is now carrying out its own review and the feeling within the department is that the final recommendations will be similar to those of the campaigners.

Resident Steve Weltman said: "This is not a crusade against McDonald's. We have all used McDonald's at some stage or other. All we are trying to do is preserve our village's way of life." McDonald's said it was now considering selling off the Hinchley Wood.

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