THE PLANNING system is far too heavily weighted in favour of large corporations, a councillor has claimed in the aftermath of Tesco’s successful application last week for a large extension to its store.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills said it was unfair that third parties did not have the right to appeal against a decision and he believes the law should be changed to offer more protection against predatory companies.
In this case, local shops and retail organisations strongly opposed the supermarket giant’s expansion, which will increase its sales area by 70 per cent, as they fear it will have a seriously detrimental impact on other businesses’ viability.
“The system has been changed by Labour and Tory governments to ensure that corporations are given the same rights as individual people,” Dr Wills said. “If you apply and lose you can appeal, if you object and lose you can’t appeal.”
He said the extension would give Tesco more than 50 per cent of the local grocery market, which would be “tantamount to a monopoly” and not something which should be encouraged.
“I’m not anti-Tesco – the Co-op needs competition – but there’s competition and there’s predation,” Dr Wills said. “Certainly the immediate result of the extension will be very good for shoppers in the short term, but what will the situation be when other shops have been forced to close, corner and convenience stores?”
While the local management of Tesco was “extremely affable”, Dr Wills said that if it was to become clear to the company that the supermarket was being run with the interests of the people of Shetland in mind rather than the corporation’s balance sheet then they would be fired immediately.
“What will be the position if Tesco is taken over by a bout of corporate cannibalism, and you have a manager with a different policy? Will that be in the interests of the shopping public?”
Earlier this year, the Competition Commission’s latest investigation into the £123 billion grocery market in the UK ruled that grocers with a 60 per cent share of a local market could still go ahead with new stores. It has proposed introducing a “competition test” which local planning authorities have to consider before sanctioning new stores and expansions, intended to make it easier for rival stores to set up in towns dominated by a single grocery chain.
But campaigners and numerous groups including the New Economics Foundation say the regulator is failing to break big supermarkets’ stranglehold and its actions have weakened checks and balances on planning to allow them to tighten their grip on the grocery trade.
Dr Wills is planning to raise the matter at the next full council meeting and is suggesting that MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott should consider proposing an amendment to the law so that there is a third party right of appeal on planning decisions.
He also believes the Tesco extension should be called in by the Scottish Government after it emerged that the SIC and the arms-length charitable trust have investments of £4.2 million in the supermarket through its oil funds.
He said he was surprised that the council’s legal advisers had not informed the planning board of this. “We may be a small shareholding . . . but that surely is still of significance. We should avoid conflicts of interest, or we should declare them.”
Dr Wills also argued that the decision was contrary not only to the council’s structure plan but also to the government’s own stated intention of supporting the maintenance and enhancement of old town centre areas.
He said: “This is why I’m looking for ethical investment, what we’ve actually done is move the money into tracker funds which are completely amoral – a computer programme which tracks other computer programmes in the casino.
“We should take back control and invest them ethically, [rather than] supporting capitalist retailers who support effective monopolies. Tesco’s financial interest trumps all, but that’s what you would expect.”
But SIC lawyer Jan Riise said the council’s holdings in Tesco were so “miniscule” compared to the size of the company that any suggestion it could have had an influence “beggars belief”.
Meanwhile, Mr Scott said there was a limit to how much protection could be offered to retailers because “people vote with their feet on this kind of thing”. He said it was no longer possible to turn the clock back on the presence of supermarkets, but that it did not necessarily follow that other shops could not compete successfully.
He pointed to the thriving Globe Butchers in Lerwick which is “queued out the door at this time of year”, adding that there already exists sufficient scope for planners to lay conditions on how companies like Tesco can and cannot operate – such as the fact that the owners of the South Road store are limited in the amount of space they can devote to non-food items.
“There are legitimate ways to choose to restrict the activities of a supermarket,” Mr Scott said.