Tesco must be used to local opposition to its ambitions by now, but even it must have been shocked by the resistance it met from traders and residents in Sherborne, Dorset. Robin Mannering reports

You almost have to admire the audacity. An application for a supermarket on the edge of an historic market town bustling with independent shops is surely a recipe for controversy. For a start, out-of-town sites are on shaky legal ground under new planning rules, while long-established high street retailers are unlikely to take losing footfall to a 28,000sq ft supermarket lying down.

But surely Tesco didn’t account for the perseverance and know-how of the retailers and residents it has confronted in the Dorset town of Sherborne. The protestors have grabbed the attention of national TV and newspapers, won the support of their local MP and high street guru Mary Portas, and attracted more than 10,000 signatures to their petitions. Not bad for a town of about, well, 10,000.

Within 48 hours of Tesco going public with its plans in December, a “mini army” of volunteers had launched a social media campaign, a website - nothankstesco - and an online petition, which was accompanied by a paper petition promoted by independent retailers. They even signed up their own patron, award-winning food writer and journalist Joanna Blythman.

The campaigners warn that the supermarket would threaten the character and economy of the town, sucking the life out of the high street and its array of independent shops. “They say there could be 200 new jobs, but there’s no calculation about loss of tourism and impact on the high street,” says Nick Lloyd, managing director of Symonds Budgens, which operates a 2,200sq ft forecourt a few hundred metres from the proposed site on the A30. “Tesco admitted to a campaigner that there’d been no post-analysis of the impact on a high street after opening a unit. So where’s the evidence of job creation?”

The team fears the impact on tourism, given Tesco would demolish the Sherborne Hotel, one of only two hotels in the heritage town. “Our Tourist Information Centre deals with about 60,000 visitors a year. Sherborne Castle has just won planning permission for an extension to their visitor facilities and will be attracting even more people,” says campaigner Liz Burt. “We are concerned that Sherborne’s businesses will lose valuable tourist spend as well.”

Campaign tools

- Social media, mainly Twitter
- Online petition
- Paper petition managed by retailers
- Newsletters
- Visits to outlying villages to raise awareness
- Defensive planning group
- Celebrity patron
- Eye-catching protests

The town centre is also already equipped with Co-op and Sainsbury’s supermarkets, both 14,000sq ft. Not that multiples per se are the main issue, according to Nick. “People aren’t against big brands, but keep them in the town centre,” he says. “In no part of the local development plan does it mention a need for out-of-town shopping.”

Instead, the local plan identifies the need to continue the proposed site for hotel use, and states that any development should be well-integrated with the town centre.

On a national planning level the proposals should be a non-starter too. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is firmly on the side of town centre over out-of-town development, and West Dorset MP and Conservative minister Oliver Letwin has no doubt that Tesco’s plans are at odds with these principles. “It is true that the NPPF specifically requires planning authorities to take into account the long-term impact of out-of-town developments on town centres,” he told C-Store. “And I take the view that this is a highly relevant consideration in the case of Sherborne.”

To strengthen their case, a coalition of opponents have set up a defensive planning group, which includes the chamber of commerce, residents, local businesses, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the Co-op, planning specialists, and Nick’s Budgens. CPRE spokesman Peter Neil believes their argument is further supported by another aspect of the NPPF, which focuses on ‘preserving and enhancing the historic environment’.

Elsewhere, the nothankstesco team has continued its PR campaign with eye-catching results. On February 26, most of the town’s independent shops closed in protest for one hour, with dozens covering their windows or boarding up their shops. Signs read: “Closed down for one hour, but it could be longer (or permanent) if Tesco comes to town.”

Hundreds of local shops, businesses and locals then participated in a march to the site of Tesco’s public consultation, where 709 people turned up to hear its plans in the first hour alone. An independent exit poll showed 663 were against and just 43 were for the proposal.

“Sherborne has never seen anything like it. There was a fabulous sense of community spirit between the town’s businesses and local shoppers,” says Liz Burt.

In fact, the whole campaign has cemented the relationship between the town’s retailers, big and small. “Everyone from Budgens and The Co-operative to our independent wine shop and local stationers are working as one to make this campaign successful,” she adds. When C-Store came to town, this united spirit was in evidence when high street retailers downed tools to participate in a photoshoot.

Let’s hope their hard work and commitment pays off, especially if Mary Portas’ judgement is accurate. “Mary said we must galvanise the town centre shops in particular, as they will pay the price if Tesco gets planning permission to come to Sherborne,” Burt concludes.
For now Tesco is still consulting on its plans, but history suggests it won’t walk away quietly.