The rail passengers whose journeys will be disrupted over the next few months because of the collapse of the Tesco car park being built over the railway line at Gerrards Cross may not suffer in vain. By bringing to national attention the fact that Tesco is so desperate to expand that it wants to build stores over railway lines, this mishap may highlight the extraordinary power of the retailer. At the same time the case exposes, once again, New Labour’s apparent inability to exert any control over the ambitions of big business. And inevitably, the politician who played the key role was the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. It should serve as yet another example of his uncanny ability for turning even Labour’s better-intentioned policies into massive own goals.
The scheme was first put forward in the early 1990s and residents fought a long campaign against it, gaining the support of 93 per cent of local people. The plan was turned down at every level of local government, from parish to the county, on the basis that the town could not cope with the traffic Tesco would generate and, most important, existing retailers would be driven out of business. So Tesco appealed and the issue went to a planning enquiry. The inspector’s report favoured the building of the store and Prescott, who at the time was head of the mega- department that included environment, local government, transport and the regions, rubber-stamped it through.
Prescott’s reasoning was that the development fell within new planning guidelines (known as PPG6) that had been designed – far too late, of course – to prevent out-of-town developments of the kind which had already leeched the life out of so many town centres. The idea was to encourage new developments only in town centres – with a presumption in favour of any schemes unless there were very strong reasons against them.
But Tesco spotted a potential loophole: Prescott’s department had omitted any precise definition of what constituted a town centre. Building a massive store right next to a small town was allowed – even if most of the custom would be driving in from the surrounding area.
Tesco also realised that a source of potential new sites was railway lines. Railway embankments could be covered over, turning them into tunnels, and stores built on the newly created site. There are 150 such potential sites in the country: Gerrards Cross was to be the testing ground. The basic engineering principles of such “cut and cover” development are sound and well-tested.
The collapse at Gerrards Cross was a bit of bad luck after heavy rain. But it must now seem doubtful whether Tesco will try the idea elsewhere. Instead it will have to look for other ways around Prescott’s feeble rules.
For the case shows the flimsiness of the Government’s vaunted claims to be tackling the decline of our town centres. Gerrards Cross is not a town but a large village – there are even signs pointing to the “village centre”. It has barely 6,000 residents, who were well served by a few useful shops such as a modest Budgens, a greengrocers and a florists – and by big Tesco stores at Amersham and Slough, both barely 10 minutes’ drive away.
Now Budgens and several other small shops have already gone out of business because of the impending arrival of Tesco. Across the country, the same thing is happening: the rate of loss of independent shops is increasing. A recent study by the Institute of Grocery Distribution revealed that 2,157 independent shops went out of business or became part of a larger company in 2004, seven times more than the average in the previous decade.
The retail business is virtually a zero sum game. There is just so much any of us want to spend, especially on food. Sure, we can be induced to buy a little bit more each year, but not enough to satisfy the almost infinite demand for customers of yet more and more Tesco stores. And so while both Tesco is fond of talking up the number of jobs it creates – echoed by ministers – the blunt truth is that such stores do not so much create jobs as displace them from other, smaller, businesses. Indeed, big stores employ fewer people per million pounds of turnover than the smaller rivals they drive out, since it is their very efficiency that gives them their competitive edge.
It is not just in food retailing. Indeed the Gerrards Cross shop as approved in its planning permission no longer fits the new Tesco mould, with its concentration on expansion into clothes and CDs. In order to justify the high cost of the Gerrards Cross store, estimated at over £20m even before this setback, Tesco sought to modify its planning application to expand the new store by 40 per cent. It was forced to withdraw the plan in the face of opposition, but local residents believe it will try again once the store is opened.
Yet there are all kinds of measures such as tighter regulation, use of competition laws and differential rules on planning consent that could help protect town centres – within the ideology of supporting the free market. Indeed markets are no longer “free” when one player has a 30 per cent share. But Labour politicians still seem to be so obsessed with distancing themselves from their past that they blanche at any such challenge to business.
It would be nice to think that Gerrards Cross might mark the turning point in the Tesco-isation of Britain. For the residents of Gerrards Cross, however, it is too late. Instead of Aldridge’s, the popular greengrocer, there is going to be a bookmaker’s. Last month John Prescott gushed to the World Cities Forum about his passion for “sustainable communities”, boasting of how the Government was using the planning system “to encourage people and retailers back into our city centres”. Is what has happened in Gerrard’s Cross really what he meant?