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Friends of the Earth campaigners protesting at Tesco's rapid expansion outside the company's annual general meeting last year.
Friends of the Earth campaigners protesting at Tesco's rapid expansion outside the company's annual general meeting last year.

The muscle of the major supermarkets in manipulating the planning system is leaving local councils powerless to resist their expansion, a new report from Friends of the Earth reveals. "Supermarkets call the shots: how supermarkets get their way in planning decisions", published today (Monday 16th January), exposes the strategies that supermarkets employ to ensure planning permission for new stores, raising questions about the effectiveness of planning controls [1].

The report finds that Tesco, as market leader, is in a particular position of power and given its rapid expansion, this is likely to increase. Tesco says will double the number of "Express" format stores to 1200 and if continue to expand at current rates, it is likely to triple the number of hypermarkets ("Tesco Extras") to 300 by 2015 [2]. Despite planning regulations to discourage out-of-town development, more than 60 per cent of retail development still takes place on town outskirts.

Evidence, collected from some 200 planning disputes around the country, reveals that:
  • Supermarkets successfully lobby local authorities to alter local plans, allocating more sites for retail.

  • Supermarkets ignore the planning system in pushing ahead with developments.

  • Supermarkets bypass the planning system by entering into separate legal agreements with councils.

  • Supermarkets use "planning gain" to offer local authorities valuable facilities, including car parks, and affordable housing to help gain planning permission.

  • Supermarkets buy up land which can be a barrier for local councils which want to develop housing or other facilities. Tesco, for example, owns around 185 sites around the country.

Some councillors also admit to being pressured into accepting supermarket planning applications because of concerns over costs of appeal, the report claims.

Supermarkets also run extensive PR campaigns in the community ahead of applying for planning permissions. Tesco denies running campaigns, saying they "work with" communities, but tactics have included writing to local councillors at their home addresses, setting up websites to promote proposed stores and using celebrities and charity donations to gain public support.

Evidence reveals that supermarkets are expert lobbyists at the local level. In Bangor, Gwynedd, Tesco opposed an application by Asda for a store in the town centre, on the basis that it would damage the town centre by competing with local shops. Two months later, Tesco opened its own store in Bangor, a hypermarket outside the town.

Tesco's extensive expansion has led to some areas being described as "Tesco Towns". In Inverness, the retailer currently attracts some 51 per cent of all food sales, but is looking to grow this figure with an application to build a fourth store. The supermarkets' recent expansion into housing also raises worrying questions about the privatisation of public space in the UK.

In Stockport, Tesco's drive to dominate has resulted in planning restrictions being ignored, with the new store 20 per cent larger than planning permission allowed. Tesco has since offered to cordon off the extra space. In Bury St Edmunds, Tesco built a bulk storage facility with no planning permission at all.

In Milton Keynes, Asda successfully obtained planning permission for the country's biggest out-of-town store after providing funding for a new stadium for Milton Keynes Dons Football Club. Local residents were leafleted ahead of the planning application with warnings that no new stadium would mean no ground for Wimbledon Football Club.

Friends of the Earth's Supermarket Campaigner Robin Webster said:

"Supermarkets like Tesco are very clearly exercising their muscle in the planning system. They have such vast resources that local councils are not really on a equal footing when it comes to negotiations. It can be very difficult for them to refuse. And local people have virtually no say at all.

"Given the very genuine concerns about the impact of supermarkets on our high streets, our farmers and on consumer choice, this raises important questions about how decisions are being made about the future of our communities. Planning legislation desperately needs to be strengthened and the Competition Commission must look again at the power exercised by supermarket chains.

Friends of the Earth is calling for the competition agencies to tackle supermarket dominance on the high street and for planning legislation to be strengthened. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) needs to refer the matter to the Competition Commission for a full market review. The group is also calling for the loophole to be closed which continues to allow mezzanine floors to be built outside stores without planning permission.


[1] (PDF)

[2] Predicted growth of Tesco Extra stores - see:

Tesco Stores Plc Annual Report and Financial Statement 2005 p.5 (PDF)

Calling the shots: How supermarkets get their way in planning decisions

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Published by Friends of the Earth Trust