Town may soon learn its Tesco fate

An iconic example of the creep of Tescopolis’ or a sensible development reflecting the needs of modern living in a bustling town? Town may soon learn its fateSheringham could learn its Tesco fate within days, as Ed Foss reports.

The battle has lasted more than a decade and left deep scars across a Norfolk coastal town - but in a week's time,

will the anti-Tesco lobby in Sheringham be waking up with a raging hangover of celebration, or one of commiseration?

It is a prediction few sane men or women would attempt to make, consider-ing the rollercoaster ride that the Tesco planning application for Sheringham has been over the last few years.

On Friday, a single-item council planning meeting will be held in neighbouring Cromer where an

11-strong committee may well finally decide whether the proposed 1,500sq m store will come to Sheringham.

The eyes which watch this decision will not only be local and will not be limited to the two main community lobby groups involved in the debate - Sheringham Campaign Against Mass Retail Overdevelopment (Scamrod) and Protesc.

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This application has attracted interest from around the country, featured in national newspapers and high-profile television documentaries, been mentioned in the House of Commons and acted as a reference point, both for the pros and the antis, to many other Tesco applications around the country.

Allegations of bullying, secret deals, indifference and massaging of statistics have been made at various levels and between various interested parties across the years. It hasn't been a game which has been played nicely. But with so much at stake, many people would say "why should it be?"

One of the greatest fuels to the fire has been the fact this is a Tesco application, not just any old supermarket. One of the council's main problems has been the fact they must work under decision-making parameters which do not include being able to take into direct account who is making the application. Be it Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose or Somerfield, it is not a planning consideration. For those who perceive the Tesco brand as a particularly aggressive one with less than average regard to other businesses, this is one of the hardest pills to swallow.

Because there are not two clear sides to this debate - it is not simply a case of those who want a supermarket and those who do not, a huge number of the 'antis' either want a smaller store, a different location or both - the waters muddy further.

The revelation in yesterday's national news that the Spice Girls have agreed to front a Tesco advertising campaign, supposedly netting each band member £1m, will not have lightened the mood in Sheringham.

The officer recommendation to Friday's committee is one of delegated approval for the application, subject to a string of conditions ranging from a need for more detail about the building's energy efficiency to a requirement for further information from Norfolk County Council about financial arrangements for highway works.

In Sheringham, talk does not centre on such technicalities, but still the subject matter of choice is of little else than Friday's meeting.

Alex Herbert, who runs a Station Road bakery called The Bake House with his wife Ruth, said that if Tesco were to come to town, the effect would not be a case of "if", but of "how quickly".

"How much evidence does anyone need? Ask anyone who has been through the Tesco experience in a small town and you will get the same answer: Tesco spells death to small towns; their presence destroys people's livelihoods. We are not being paranoid, you just need to research what has happened in other places," he said.

"If that has happened in all these other places, why on earth would anyone believe it will not happen in Sheringham? And it's not just bakers, butchers and greengrocers - look at all the different business areas Tesco covers, it is just a one-stop shop.

"We will see a long, slow death for Sheringham."

For a father-and-son team at Blyth and Wright Ironmongers, the battle against Tesco has several levels.

Ron Wright feels one of the strongest arguments is about the road infrastructure serving Sheringham: "We shall have such a bundle of traffic, the roads simply will not be able to handle it and the town will choke.

"Sheringham will die because people will not be able to park near the other shops, so they won't come."

His son Jamie added: "Sheringham will lose its heart, which is a particular shame because it is a town with a genuine community, like a lot of towns used to be.

"There are many independently-run family businesses here, the type which a lot of other towns don't have.

"Sheringham has remained in the past in many ways and that is one of the things which attracts people to it - it is an incredibly important quality which is all too rare these days.

"This Tesco, in this location, is not right for Sheringham."

Mr Wright said he still held out hope for Friday's meeting: "We still live in a democratic society and we must fight for what we believe in.

"We can't be bullied by people like Tesco - if we are not careful, they will be running the country soon."

Janet Farrow, who is chairman of Sheringham Chamber of Trade and Commerce as well as running a business in the town, said gridlock would be a regular occurrence if a Tesco were built.

And she added: "The council knows businesses will be lost because it is acknowledged in more than one report.

"We have also been told we will get a rate reduction, which is further evidence they know the town will suffer and profits will drop.

"We will attend on Friday and make our arguments. I still feel we are in with a fighting chance.

"I hope the councillors show their backbone on Friday, something which they have certainly shown in the past."

On the other side of the coin, Pam Blyth, who heads up Protesc, a lobby group in favour of Tesco, has made a series of arguments for the store and is not alone in her stance.

Mrs Blyth was not available for comment yesterday, but her arguments have included: the need to consider elderly people on fixed incomes and young couples with families for whom a Tesco would help with household bills; the fact Sheringham was being "deprived" of an adequate foodstore; and the view that the number of people anti-Tesco was nowhere near as great as some people had attempted to portray.

Tesco bosses themselves have said objectors are a "fervent minority" whose objections are unfounded. They have also said there has been an inaccurate view of the way in which the company and North Norfolk District Council had dealt with the planning process.

Whatever the outcome of Friday's west development control meeting - and perhaps a betting man would be as well advised to expect a deferral to the slightly higher authority of the joint development control committee in a few weeks' time - the antagonism which this planning application has created will not disappear quickly.

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