A Market Town (the clue's in the name!) – not a Supermarket Town! Take Petersfield for instance. Lovely little Hampshire market town – a remnant of old England right in the middle of the green and pleasant new South Downs National Park. With a market square slap bang in the town centre. Everything happens there – markets twice a week, farmers markets once a month, food festivals, bonfire celebrations, New Year's Eve revelry. And all this activity watched over by the medieval church of St Peter's.
Tourists come here from all over the region – walkers exploring the National Park, cycling clubs, bikers riding the length of the A272 – and from all over the world – from Australia, the USA, Japan and beyond. They come because Petersfield still has character – markets and little independent shops that offer something different. People from London and all over the south come to the Bran Tub, our health food store that has been trading here for more than 30 years. The little shops in Bakery Lane, Petersfield Electrical, the Happy Cow greengrocer, Morgans the butcher – a real functioning community that has provided a haven nestled in the south downs for generations.
But from far away others regarded this town with envious eyes, and slowly and surely looked down the microscope of Google Earth and drew their plans against us.
The first of them arrived in October 2010. I was mowing the lawn when a smiling stranger arrived at the gate and announced himself as a Land Acquisition agent. We'd like to put a lovely shiny supermarket on the factory site next door to your houses – the developer would like to buy your houses at 25% above the market value. Wouldn't you like that? Not specially, but I passed the message on to my neighbours and we discussed it.
One of our number was adamant – he wanted to go out of his house in a box and was not selling for less than millions. That option was off the table.
Bribery & Corruption?
The agent came back with another offer - if we wanted to stay they'd pay £20,000 per house and provide landscaping between us and the supermarket. Beware of strangers bearing gifts. The legal agreement they wanted us to sign made it binding upon us to keep silent about the development and the payment. Not only that, but we were each being asked to write a letter of support to the planners for a planning application that we should be objecting to from the rooftops. And nobody would get any cash if one person spilled the beans about the deal. No mention of it being a no-strings-attached compensation payment. It felt like attempted bribery; it was attempted bribery.
My gut response was to tell these developers to take their £20,000 and stick it where the sun don't shine. I didn't want a supermarket service yard twenty feet from my door with all its attendant noise, excessive lighting, carbon footprint and large lorries backing in at unsocial hours leaving their engines running to keep the refrigeration functioning. Not to mention the 40,000 square foot supermarket and the underground car park for 200 cars. The town doesn't need it – we already have three supermarkets and the experience of shopping in them is becoming more unpleasant by the day.
Some neighbours though were all for damage limitation: "These supermarkets are powerful. We can't beat them – let's just take the money and let other people object." I gritted my teeth for as long as humanly possible then gave notice that I was going to break ranks.
So here we are in June 2012. I've learnt a lot about the planning process in a very short time. I have given the legal agreement to my MP, Damian Hinds. The Department for Land and Communities is investigating whether it is illegal. I've asked to speak to the Association of Petersfield Businesses to get their support. I've emailed Tescopoly. I've got advice from Planning Aid England. I have emailed the CEO of Morrisons and highlighted the developer's activities. I received a reply from their head of legal services, Greg McMahon:
"Morrisons is keen to open a store in Petersfield and this is common knowledge across the property market. It is not uncommon for developers and agents to do advance, speculative work in a town utilising this knowledge and no doubt other food retailers are also seeking representation in the town.
"We are aware of this site and we have had discussions with Morbaine about its suitability for a food store. However, I can confirm that we were not aware of any contracts being issued to local residents until you contacted us. The issue of such documents, and the arrangements referred to in them, were not with our authority. It is still far from clear as to whether Morrisons want to pursue this opportunity. We have no formal agreement with Morbaine and we have not instructed them to do any work for us in this regard.
"I think, therefore, that your concerns should be addressed to Morbaine.
"However, as you have asked that this be brought to the attention of our Corporate Compliance and Responsibility Committee, I have copied all the emails between us and this letter and the draft agreement which you sent to me on 12 June 2012 to Mrs Penny Hughes, who chairs that Committee, so that she is fully appraised of this issue.
"Yours sincerely, Greg McMahon, Company Secretary and Head of Legal Servicesfor Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc"
Relations between neighbours are at an all-time low. The developers have talked to the Town Council and the District Council, they've issued a press release and done their surveys; they've done a telephone marketing campaign and taken on a publicity company from London to put a positive spin on a local disaster; they've paid a traffic consultant to say that it'll all be fine. But I've found that – just once in a blue moon – the planners do listen and do tell the supermarkets to sling their hook. It happened in Ledbury, Herefordshire (www.saveledbury.com) where a well-organised, evidence-based campaign sent Sainsbury's packing. Let's hope our planners have the courage and vision to do the same.
Note: we know the name of the developer and even have a copy of their legal document mentioned above. Petersfield already has a Tesco, Tesco Express, M & S Food, M & S Food at BP petrol station, and a Waitrose. Lidl are apparently taking over the site that used to host Focus DIY. Have mercy!