Amit Patel had everything to play for when he spearheaded a campaign to prevent Asda coming to town. Robin Mannering examines his tactics
When Amit Patel first heard the news on his birthday last July, he presumed his friends were winding him up. But he soon realised that Asda’s proposals to take over half of the nearby B&Q site were no joke.
His store, Belvedere News, Food and Wine in South-east London, was already struggling amid a stagnant local economy and competition from a recently opened Tesco Express. “The development would have been the final nail in the coffin,” he says.
Amit (pictured) had little choice but to stand up to the proposals, but where to start? “I did some research on the internet to see what other retailers had done in similar situations. I then contacted Jac Roper [C-Store’s retail agony aunt], as well as the Tescopoly website,” he says. “Their message was be positive - it can be done.”
Amit set about canvassing support for his campaign, but he was initially disheartened. “I spoke to local retailers, but most were negative and apathetic.” Undeterred, he drafted a petition and contacted his MP, Teresa Pearce, who advised him to speak to councillors - so he got in touch with Kerry Allon.
“He said he would help if I had proof of public support, so I sent the petition to residents and retailers.”
The councillor said he had initially backed the proposal. “I thought it looked like quite a good idea Asda said it would create 300 jobs and I thought it would look good. But Amit made me think again,” Allon says.
Learn from Amit:
● Do your research
● Canvass local support
● Contact your MP and councillors
● Contact the local press
● Capture the public’s imagination by giving your campaign a catchy name
● Engage with the developer
● Stay positive!
Amit soon built a small, but determined group of local traders and they settled on a name for their campaign: BAAD (Belvedere Against Asda Development). With the help of cllr Allon they arranged photo shoots with the local press, who gave the campaign publicity. “Naming the campaign BAAD was a great PR move - you need vision to catch the public imagination,” says cllr Allon.
They raised money to fund posters, a banner and letters asking residents whether they were for or against the scheme. They could post their replies back to cllr Allon, or return them to their local shop.
The campaigners also met representatives from Asda. “They kept reiterating the fact they would create 300 jobs, but could not confirm the split between full and part time, or confirm for how long the jobs would be guaranteed.”
In the meantime, the application was submitted and Bexley council planning officers recommended approval. Indeed, as ‘judgement day’ approached, Amit began to lose heart. “The statistics show that multiples always get permission, especially in times of austerity - the mults will pay councils for new roads and so on. One councillor admitted to me that they can’t resist the money.”
A week before the planning committee meeting Amit was told he had a three-minute window to put his point across. However, the next day he was told he was on the reserve list as someone else had put their name forward to oppose the proposals. But, in a further twist, on the day of the hearing he was told he could speak after all. He was given the details of someone who could help, but wasn’t told who it was. “When I called the number, it was a representative from one of Asda’s major competitors. He advised: ‘Just tell them a sob story. Tell them how bad conditions are’.”
This is exactly what he did, along with questioning the feasibility of the location. He told the committee: “Ask yourself this, ‘why is B&Q looking to divide their existing store in two and share it with Asda?’ The answer is simple - they are struggling financially, because the site they chose to open a store on is a secondary location.”
The tactics paid off and councillors opted to reject the application. To what extent Amit’s speech - and campaign - influenced the decision cannot be known, but there is no doubt it was a contributing factor. “It’s all about how you present the case,” says cllr Allon, “and Amit did a brilliant job”.
The case is far from over - the application will go back to the committee in March - but Amit has bought himself some time. Here’s hoping his next birthday will be less stressful. ■