Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill coined the phrase: “All politics is local.” Local residents and decision-makers can become very fraught over the placement and composition of shops and amenities. The exile of Costa Coffee from Totnes by campaign organisation No to Costa, a consortium which included taxpayer-funded ‘charity’ and political group Transition Town Totnes, demonstrates the grotesque power of supposedly local campaigns. There has been a similarly tense debate over the fate of the old Bath Press Site, which has lain empty and desolate since 2007. Tesco purchased the site, with the objective of establishing a superstore in Bath. Due to previous rejections, Tesco’s plan for the site has evolved. The plan for the Bath Press site proposed by Tesco and St. James’s Investments (SJI) is for a superstore, equipped with a 395-space underground car park, along with homes, offices, a museum and creative workshops. The historic façade of the Bath Press would be retained.
The officers of Bath & North East Somerset Council recommended that Tesco’s proposal be rejected. Councillors, sitting on the Development Control Committee, voted to follow the officers’ references and reject the Bath Press plans with nine votes to four. There were five justifications given for this position: the danger to human lives due to the nearby operational gas holder site; failure to justify the assumptions on parking demands and trip generation in the proposal’s Transport Assessment; the lack of accordance with the “sequential approach to development”; the generation of “unsustainable travel patterns”; and the “unacceptable and significant adverse impact on the vitality and viability of the Moorland Road District Shopping Centre”. Whilst it would not be possible to comment, in detail, on the assumptions about travel and parking made in Tesco-SJI’s submission, the other reasons should be considered in turn.
The gas holder, which is to the north of the Bath Press site, needs to be decommissioned; and the decommissioning take place before any development can occur nearby. This includes plans for all adjacent housing developments, including the later phases of the regeneration of the Western Riverside. Thus, the gas holder’s decommission has been presumed as part of Tesco’s proposal, and Tesco even offered to make a “major financial contribution” of £5m to its neutralisation. The gas holder decommissioning would unlock those adjacent proposals, and render it easier to build homes in Bath.
The ‘sequential approach’ means that local councils should make preferences for sites closer to the town or city centre, brown-field sites over green-field sites, and so on. The ‘sequential approach’ is part of the central government mandates on local council, which arises from the Department for Local Government and Communities, and has been outlined in Planning for Town Centres: Practice guidance on need, impact and the sequential approach. However, the officers were not condemning the Tesco proposal on the basis of actual developments occurring nearer to Bath city centre, but the hypothetical development that may replace Homebase and possible expansions on the Western Riverside, which are nearer to the city centre than the Bath Press site. Homebase’s lease on that site will expire in 2020, and Western Riverside East’s regeneration will remain “a preferred area of expansion for the city centre up to 2026”.
Building a supermarket does increase the amount of cars heading towards that location, since they would only be passing an empty site now. However, it does reduce travel time, the time their car trammels on Bath’s road, for people who are closer to the Bath Press site than the other supermarkets in the city. It would also mean people living in the area would be able to walk to a supermarket, rather than taking their car. The balance of these effects is difficult to model, and would only be revealed once the supermarket is actually built. In this instance, the ‘sequential approach’ would mean developing a supermarket neighbouring the Sainsbury’s at Green Park Station. This development preference would simply result in an “unsustainable travel pattern” congealing nearer the city centre, which would be worse than on Lower Bristol Road.
Defending Supermarkets against Competition
Finally, the council officers believe the proposal should be rejected based on the effect the new Tesco store would have on the Moorland Road shopping parade. Councillors found this reason particularly compelling, such as Cllr Eleanor Jackson (Lab, Radstock), who said:
I think my personal reason for objecting is the impact on Moorland Road. I hear what the speakers on both sides have said, and I realise it is a finely judged decision, but I am just thinking of Paulton High Street and that has become a graveyard since Tesco in Midsomer Norton arrived.
However, it is a very strange argument that a shop should not be opened because councillors are worried that people may shop there. It is not a perverse, unforeseen side effect – it is the entire point of opening the new store. Whilst the protection of Moorland Road may be dressed in anti-supermarket rhetoric, but there are, in fact, two supermarkets in Moorland Road: a Co-Operative store and a Sainsbury’s Local. The viability of the Co-Op is used to support the officers’ recommendations: “The closure of the Co-Op would lead to a significant adverse impact upon the health of Moorland Road district centre.” The policy’s rejection is not a defence of the city against supermarkets; it is a defence of incumbent supermarkets against further competition.
Property Rights and Planning Permission
Tesco’s difficulty in obtaining the recommendation of council officers and the consent of councillors demonstrates one key economic insight: the value of a property right is not merely held in the ownership of the property itself, but in the available options for use of that property. A car’s value is heavily diminished when it is illegal to drive, such as when it has failed an MOT, and land is much more valuable when it comes attached with planning permission to build upon that land. Since building homes and supermarkets requires the consent of locally elected councillors, investment in a company’s image can reap ultimate benefits in planning permission. As Tip O’Neill said: “All politics is local”, and the use of land and property is heavily controlled at a local level. A company resting upon an ethical image, such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, can win the long game.