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Daniella Gibb

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Break the Chains - Power to the People of Godalming, Surrey

Posted: 28/10/2012 12:15

Did you know that premises formally used as a pub do not need planning permission to be turned into supermarkets? Under current Permitted Development rules, pubs are classed as a retail business and therefore no change in use planning permission is required for it to become a supermarket. Well Tesco does and the supermarket chain exploits this loophole to deposit an Express store into many a grave of a local pub all over the UK.

I learnt this at a town meeting in Godalming, Surrey where residents are trying to fight the supermarket chain in the hope of replicating the success of Totnes v. Costa Coffee this week. Does the success of Totnes inspire other towns to believe that they, too, can win over large corporations or was it a 'once in a blue moon' retreat? I hope that Godalming will boost this statistic because communities need some more blue moons or else all towns will become faceless replicas of branded Britain.

Tesco are planning to open a Tesco Express in the old Wey Inn public house building on Meadrow in Godalming. The building is situated on a busy roundabout, 500 yards from a Junior School and right next door to an established local convenience store run for 25 years by Hari and Amita Patel. The community oppose this application with concerns over traffic, pupil safety and the fact that it almost certainly will mark the demise of the Patel's business.

This isn't a boring post about planning permission and placards; no, this is about heart and community as David meets a blue and white striped Goliath.

Tesco very kindly sent two representatives down to meet with Rt Hon MP Jeremy Hunt and the local community and despite not living in the area anymore I felt compelled to attend. Maybe I was inspired by the press surrounding Totnes this week but I feel very strongly that the "blue ladies shop," a childhood nickname for the newsagents, who still deliver my parents' newspapers, shouldn't be threatened. Mr and Mr Tesco were late after succumbing to a local sat-nav diversion which meant they had to wade through us 'over-spillers' at the back. I resisted the urge to throw locally-sourced eggs at them although my inner rebel was roused!

There were placards, pensioners and prams all opposing these two men; I understand that they are merely representatives and it may have been intimidating to be faced with 400 angry faces but hey, that's what they're paid for and I sadly suspect that we were just one of many similar groups that they have faced. Perhaps they are immune to meeting tired looking, stress-ridden local business owners such as Mr Patel who is said to be "humbled" by the out-pouring of local support.

Taller Mr Tesco, John Timothy, assured the meeting that Tesco "do listen," and were "not pig-headed about putting in stores where they won't work."My major concern was that the smaller Mr Tesco, who is on the 'working group' trying to resolve the road safety issues, spoke like he had swallowed a corporate buzz word dictionary. I just heard jargon such as "co-exist" and "project group", he didn't seem to believe anything he robotically relayed, and I certainly didn't. It felt as if Tesco are sugar-coating the application by saying "Let us help, let us regenerate the old pub," expecting residents to be compliant enough to think they are doing the area a favour. Smaller Mr Tesco even suggested that Tesco would "go over and above our legal requirement" to sort out traffic issues, suggesting they would put their hands in their own pockets and finance a zebra crossing. Godalming doesn't need a zebra crossing, the school has a perfectly good lollipop man and I believe that Tesco's deep pockets could be better used elsewhere.

Opposition is not enough; it cannot be purely "No, No," or "against, against" because you end up sounding like placard waving banshees - Godalming has to be cleverer than that. Totnes created a positive manifesto outlaying future plans for the town and Costa just couldn't fit in it. Indeed, Godalming is not against Tesco in an ideological fight against supermarket consumerism - residents happily admit to frequenting the other large supermarkets in the area, it is purely that they don't need another one in such a dangerous area and only a few miles from the other Tesco Express.

There must be hundreds of similar battles every week around the UK as communities try to keep brands at bay so why is Godalming any more deserving? Well apart from the fact that it is my home town, the residents at the meeting showed that despite the commuter belt image, this town still respected itself enough to fight. It respects its community values and local businesses and will not let Godalming's individualism and charm be squashed by what John Timothy described as "something as innocuous as a Tesco Express."

Innocuous it isn't. Tesco may have by-passed the planning permission of local authorities but Mr and Mr Tesco please report back to your "working group" that it does not mean you can by-pass getting permission from Mr Patel and the community.

 

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