On the one side is Tesco, Britain's pre-eminent supermarket chain where a 270,000 strong workforce gleans an annual profit of some £2bn from its 2,000 stores each year. On the other is Manningtree, England's smallest town, home to 700 souls and one of East Anglia's best preserved Georgian shopping streets.
But, if campaigners are to be believed, the arrival of a new Tesco store, the 12th within a 10-mile radius of the town, is about to deliver a hammer blow to the character of this former wool and brewing centre where Matthew Hopkins, the 17th-century Witchfinder General, began his career.
Some time this autumn the supermarket giant will deliver a planning application to the local council seeking permission to start construction on a 30,000sq ft store on the site of a derelict former builder's yard. Tesco's ambition, however, has prompted a furious backlash by residents.
"We are at a tipping point for the town," said Jenny Hawley, chair of the Stour Community First pressure group. "A lot of independent shops have already been lost and while there are fewer than there were 20 years ago you can still do all your shopping on the high street."
Hundreds of people have crammed into recent public meetings held in the town to discuss the imminent arrival of Tesco. While not everyone opposes the plan, says Ms Hawley, the level of support has been "brilliant".
"The problem with Tesco is that their reputation precedes them and we have seen what they have done in other parts of the countr," she said. "One of the main concerns is the impact a big Tesco would have on the character of the town and what it would do to the spirit of the place."
Manningtree's battle comes as the Competition Commission prepares to deliver the preliminary findings tomorrow of its investigation into the £120bn UK grocery sector, which is dominated by Tesco. The chain has a 31 per cent share of the market – almost as much as Asda and Sainsbury combined. One of the pre-eminent concerns among the 500 submissions heard by the commission was the impact of the chain's continued expansion on small retailers.
It is widely anticipated that the commission will concur with the recent Barker report, which recommended the dropping of the "needs test" in which local authorities decide whether a new supermarket is actually justified by the shopping demand in the area. Campaigners believe this could make it easier for more stores to be built. Tesco, for example, has opened 106 stores in the UK this year.
For the veteran food campaigner Lady Caroline Cranbrook, who fought a successful battle against plans to open a Tesco in nearby Saxmundham, Suffolk, the scrapping of the needs test threatens to undermine local powers.
"My huge concern is that they want to get rid of the requirement to establish a need before a supermarket goes up," she said. "With small district councils there is very little they have to protect themselves other than this test."
Tesco has had a troubled relationship with the people of Manningtree since it first made an appearance there in 2005 after buying up the One-Stop Shop and turning it into a Tesco Express. Instead of twice-weekly deliveries, lorries started making deliveries up to six times a day. One resident, John Caldow, staged a sit-in outside his house and refused to make way for a lorry bringing supplies.
A Tesco spokesman, Michael Kissman, insisted only a minority opposed the store. "The vast majority of people support it and the majority of traders do too," he said. "The reality of Manningtree is that people are driving to do their shopping somewhere else."
The Stour Community First group has commissioned a traffic study ahead of Tesco's planning application and is confident it can argue a powerful case. Tendring District Council, which will make the decision, said it was in pre-application talks with Tesco and awaiting a formal submission.
Lady Caroline Cranbrook added: "It will be a retrograde step if we end up like America with only shopping malls, especially at a time when people say they want distinctive shops and fresh, local food."
Store giant vs Manningtree
England's smallest town
Founded: Manytre (circa 1500)
Number of shops: 33
Boss: Lee Lay-Flurrie, mayor of Manningtree (expenses only)
Britain's biggest supermarket chain
Founded: Well Street Market, Hackney, east London, 1919
Number of shops: 1,988
Boss: Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive (salary £4.6m)
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