Campaigners fighting a decade-long battle against the arrival of a planned Tesco superstore claim they have been sabotaged by "dirty tricks" involving the fabrication of letters of support.
Claim and counter-claim have been flying thick and fast in Sheringham in Norfolk for years over the proposed arrival of the £62bn-a-year retail giant but the latest twist has surprised even seasoned observers.
Dozens of "residents" purporting to come from the town have had letters published in local newspapers in recent months, backing the arrival of Britain's biggest retailer and criticising an alternative scheme put forward by a local landowner and Waitrose.
After becoming suspicious at what appeared to be a sudden groundswell of support for Tesco, campaigners began investigating the letters and asked residents and postmen whether they knew the correspondents.
No one did and publicly available electoral and phone records for the streets on which they claimed to live indicate that the pro-Tesco letter writers do not, actually, exist.
For the past 14 years, Tesco has been trying to open a supermarket in the middle of affluent North Norfolk. Seven years ago, North Norfolk District Council signed a commercial agreement with Tesco, undertaking not to assist or promote any rival scheme on its land or land owned by Norfolk County Council, including prime sites in the town centre.
Its planning officers have repeatedly backed Tesco's proposal but in March councillors defied the advice by rejecting Tesco's application for a 1,175 sq metre store – the fourth time in six years they have rejected a Tesco application.
Instead they backed by 10-6 the building of rival environmental Greenhouse Project put forward by a retired businessman, Clive Hay-Smith, with the backing of Waitrose.
North Norfolk District Council officers refused to approve the vote, saying they had to check whether it was lawful. After a legal adviser indicated it was, the council refused again to ratify the vote by its elected members, saying it must first investigate a complaint against a councillor who voted against Tesco.
North Norfolk District Council said that the complaint – which alleged a councillor had been "prejudicial" on account of once being a shopkeeper who had spoken out against Tesco – had come from members of the public.
It has disbanded the planning committee that voted against Tesco and replaced it with a new planning committee with fewer members – and a higher proportion of Tesco supporters.
While Tesco is valued by many shoppers for its low prices, campaigns have sprung up around the country against it, amid complaints it blights local traders and robs communities of character, turning them into "clone towns" dominated by chain shops.
Apart from a small Sainsbury's, Sheringham, an ordinary, pretty seaside town, bustles with independent shops, including three greengrocers, two butchers, two bakers, two chemists, a toy shop and a large ironmongers.
Tesco's proposal would be on the central town site, currently occupied by a block of housing, a community centre and fire station. The last two would be rebuilt and Tesco would pay the council £1.2m in return for demolishing the social housing.
The "Greenhouse Project" – which is 27 per cent smaller – would be sited on the edge of town, sell food from nearby allotments, and contain a Food Academy which would train school-leavers in catering skills. Shoppers would be taken there by free electric buses which would also deliver food for free.
Over the past year a spate of letters have appeared in the Eastern Daily Press (EDP) and North Norfolk News in support of Tesco's scheme, with the campaign intensifying after the rejection of Tesco on 4 March.
The correspondence often purported to come from low-income groups such as single parents or disabled people who said they needed affordable local food and, generally, complained that councillors had not taken into account the feelings of local people in rejecting Tesco.
In a letter in the North Norfolk News, on 1 April, "Simon Crossley", who gave his address as Holt Road, Sheringham, wrote: "I remain a long-term resident in Sheringham and we want a supermarket in the high street which will bring regeneration to our town centre. Waitrose certainly won't do that. Those that haven't moved here because it's a retirement town want Sheringham to move forward. Hurry up North Norfolk District Council and overturn the decision."
A "Clarissa Henson," of Britons Lane, Sheringham, wrote: "Tesco will be on the high street and will give Sheringham the boost into the 21st century it needs. Its design is unique to Sheringham, takes into account the characteristics of the town and replaces the soulless buildings that need attention."
"Elliot Wilkinson," who had a letter published in the EDP on 28 April, said he had been unable to attend a town council meeting because he was disabled: "I support the latest Tesco application which includes a new community centre with access for the disabled. It's just a shame that I'm unable to attend a town council meeting to tell them this." Electoral records show no sign of the individuals, nor of 46 other people who had a total of 86 letters published in the EDP or North Norfolk News in support of Tesco, against the Greenhouse Project, or both.
Tesco said it had nothing to do with the letters and there is no suggestion it knew, approved or encouraged them. "Tesco has acted properly at all times in Sheringham," the retailer said. "These allegations [of potential Tesco involvement] are malicious and entirely without foundation. Our application has significant local support and is consistent with national and local planning policy.
"We have no connection to the letters and no influence over the composition of council committees.
"The reality is that most people in the town travel elsewhere to do their shopping," Tesco added. "Our plans, close to the town centre, would keep shoppers in the area and be much more convenient for local people."
Several of the bogus correspondents are listed as "friends" on the Facebook social networking page of a pro-Tesco campaigner, Jono Read, a politics student at the University of East Anglia. Mr Read, who has been vociferous in calling for Tesco, said that he had been in touch with the company several times about his views and had a received a personal letter of thanks for his support from Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive.
However Mr Read denied having any connection to the letter writing campaign. "Definitely not," he said. "I don't really have much control over who writes and who doesn't, and I know that many people have said they use pseudonyms or their maiden names because of intimidation."
He added: "One of the people have had their tyres slashed because of their support for Tesco."
While some people in the town prefer the Tesco proposal, the Greenhouse Project is backed by Sheringham district councillors, Sheringham Town Council and Sheringham Preservation Society.
Before the 4 March vote the Greenhouse Project for Weybourne Road received 223 letters in support and 55 objections. The Tesco plan for Cromer Road received 287 letters of support and 236 objections. It is not clear whether any of the pro-Tesco letters in the consultation were bogus, though campaigners suspect some were.
Tesco was unhappy at the way documents prepared by council officers represented the meeting and its solicitors emailed the council "suggesting a number of changes to the draft minutes" – changes which councillors rejected.
All eyes are now on what will happen at the next meeting of the new Development Control Committee, which has 14 members compared to the previous 21, and includes six councillors known to support Tesco.
Eroica Mildmay, a novelist and member of Scamrod (Sheringham Campaign against Major Retail Over-Development), said: "This is the endgame. The abcess of dirty tricks is coming to a head. North Norfolk District Council want a Tesco. They have gerrymandered a committee to do it."
NNDC denied that the new planning committee had been gerrymandered, saying there had been a long-standing plan to combine the East and West Development Control Committees. "The composition of the Development Control Committee, completely unrelated to any Sheringham planning issues, is decided by the political groups, a decision process in which officers play no part," it said.
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