A Welsh council ‘shot itself in the foot’ when it tried to sell land to Tesco behind the public’s back. Robin Mannering reports

Last month campaigners in North Wales breathed a sigh of relief after Tesco pulled the plug on plans to build a 28,000sq ft supermarket in the market town of Llanrwst. Local retailers and residents had been alarmed by the potentially devastating impact of the proposals on independent businesses and the character of the town. Alas, nothing new here. But what really galvanised campaigners - and prompted the intervention of local politicians - was the conduct of the council.

In 2011 Conwy council agreed in principle to sell council land to Tesco, with the proceeds of the sale earmarked for the development of a waste transfer station. However, the council managed to conceal the plans until February 2012, when they were leaked to the public. At a meeting subsequently organised by Welsh Assembly Member Janet Finch Saunders, council officers “categorically stated” that no contract would be agreed without first holding public consultation. “There were some very robust challenges put forward and they made some assurances,” Finch Saunders told C-Store. “But there wouldn’t have been any communication if I hadn’t organised the event.”

Following the meeting and after the council resumed its silence, a few sceptical locals decided to set up the Llanrwst Campaign Group, which held its first meeting in May. The campaign exploded into life in July, however, when a leaked email from a council officer suggested the council was going to give the green light to the proposals behind closed doors. The email, sent to councillors at Llanrwst Town Council, requested the exclusion of the press and public from a meeting to discuss the plans, and revealed that Tesco’s developer, Consolidated Property Group (CPG), had demanded to exchange contracts by mid-August, following which a planning application would be made. “This is a situation which Conwy council cannot take lightly,” the officer added.

The campaigners immediately wrote to all councillors, local MPs and Assembly Members expressing their concerns. “Putting the interests of a non-elected multinational corporation before local democracy is not what residents elected town and county borough councillors to do,” they wrote.

In the meantime, the campaigners mobilised support for their cause by setting up a blog post to keep the public updated, and distributed protest posters across the town. Conservative MP for Aberconwy, Guto Bebb, and Finch Saunders both wrote to the council leader to express their concerns. In Bebb’s case, his letter was partly influenced by C-Store, which had started covering the story. “Such is the perception of events in Llanrwst that I have even found myself this week fielding calls from a national trade magazine making similar allegations about the process within Conwy planning authority,” he wrote.

And then Tesco unexpectedly pulled the plug on the plans. However, the case isn’t closed. “It’s great that Tesco pulled out, but CPG haven’t,” said campaign spokesman Pete Borlace. “The council still have land for sale - maybe they’ll talk to someone else,” added local Spar retailer Mike Skerrett.

The council, for its part, has pledged to engage the local community with the development of its town planning strategy, Vision for Llanrwst. “We’re on the case with the council in terms of transparency,” Mike said. “The problem is that most councillors are independent so there’s no party line to toe.”

However, the council may have inadvertently played into the campaigners’ hands. “They shot themselves in the foot,” said Borlace. “Tesco probably don’t want to be seen to be in negotiations with a council doing things on the sly.”

Finch Saunders added: “There was a body of people who did want the development, but the debate was stifled by the way the council handled it.”

What is clear is that an effective campaign and the resulting media coverage played a large part in exposing the council’s behaviour, and in derailing the plans. Whatever happens now, Conwy council will be under huge pressure to improve its communication and transparency, giving the public a greater say in local retail development.•