Mark Buttress took on the might of Tesco and won in front of a government inspector. Robin Mannering charts the two-year journey to victory.
When Mark Buttress found himself up against a well-oiled machine of Tesco representatives in front of a government adjudicator, he must have questioned his chances. Mark was among a group of three people representing local businesses, schools and residents in giving evidence against Tesco’s plans to build a superstore near his Jaybee’s Convenience Store in Basingstoke. But thanks to the team’s persistence and Tesco’s poor defence, the supermarket giant lost its appeal against the council’s decision to refuse permission for the store.
In the end the arbitrator cited the “significant adverse impact on the vitality and viability” the proposed supermarket would have on the town centre. The plans were also at odds with both the National Planning Policy Framework and the local plan, he said.
That the case ended up being determined by a government inspector was a considerable achievement for Mark and Co in itself. The proposals first came to light more than two years ago, when Tesco announced plans to build an out-of-centre 63,000sq ft superstore on a former industrial site. Tesco said it would revitalise the area and held two meetings to discuss the plans and reveal how it would improve the road network.
“But no one from Tesco was at the meeting I attended, there was just its PR company,” Mark says. “I rang Tesco and told them a new supermarket wasn’t needed as there is already an Asda, Morrisons, Lidl and Sainsbury’s. They then admitted they just wanted a slice of the pie.”
Spurred on by concerns that the proposals would destroy local businesses, including his own, Mark set up a petition. “More than 1,600 people signed it, which is good considering it wasn’t online. I also urged people to write to the council when Tesco submitted its plans,” he says.
Tesco withdrew its plans, though, when it realised it wouldn’t get approval for its highway improvements. Six months later it came back with ‘magic roundabout’ plans, which succeeded in prompting local schools to join the campaign due to their concerns about pupils’ road safety.
Mark knew he needed political support, too, so he contacted local councillors. At first they were non-committal because they wanted to gauge popular opinion - which is exactly what they did. “The Lib Dem councillors carried out their own research by delivering 3,000 questionnaires to people,” Mark says. “They got more than 2,000 leaflets back which revealed an overwhelming negative response.” So the councillors changed their tune and got involved in the campaign, helping to form an action group to focus their strategy.
Meanwhile, Mark received an unexpected visitor in his store. “Someone claiming to represent Tesco came into my shop and asked me what it would take to withdraw our objections and petition. I said: ‘You’ve got 10 seconds to leave my shop’.”
In the hot spot
As the day of reckoning loomed, the action group were told they had six minutes to present their case at the planning committee hearing. “It was decided that three of us would speak - I represented the retail voice, someone else the residents’ voice, and a cyclist focused on the highway concerns,” Mark says. “The Lib Dem councillors produced their questionnaire results. Tesco said it had 600 signatures, but it only brought one person willing to speak up.”
The council’s officers had already recommended approval for the scheme, so Mark wasn’t getting his hopes up. But in the end 11 out of 12 councillors voted against the plans, and the other abstained.
Tesco appealed the decision and Mark ended up giving evidence to the adjudicator. The multiple has 28 days until the beginning of May to appeal the decision, so Mark is hoping the issue will be dead and buried in a few days. He’s also looking to the future with more optimism. “People are starting to wake up and see what damage big supermarket groups are doing,” he says.•