Vitality and Viability
Vitality and viability has proved to be an issue that has attracted a great deal of interest in relation to the Tesco applications. Although we raised it with the planning officers at some length and both verbally and in writing, there is no consideration of it in the officers’ report on the application for an extension. It is noticeable that in their list of the relevant sections of the Local Plan, the section on vitality and viability is missing. It is worth considering in detail exactly why it is an issue here and why it constitutes grounds for refusing Tesco’s applications.
The Local Plan and Vitality and Viability
The Cambridge Local Plan says
6.16: “Shopping policies [...] seek to enhance the vitality and viability of the City Centre and support the role of the District and Local Centres[...]
6.17: “Applications for retail developments will, where appropriate, be subject to the demonstration [...] that there will not be an adverse impact on existing centres, and that transport and environmental matters have been considered.”
6.24 District and Local Centres serve an important function, providing the ability to shop close to where people live and work. [...] Additional development in these centres should cater mostly for current users and other local people, increasing the viability of the local centre.
Thus, a decision that undermined the viability of a local centre would not be consistent with the Local Plan. Mill Road is designated by the council as a local centre.
As everyone from local residents to The Daily Telegraph knows, the vitality and viability of the Mill Road shopping centre (and its unique selling point in Cambridge) clearly lies in the continued ability of its independent, local A1 businesses to trade. Planning decisions that, by their very nature, necessarily threaten the continued existence of these businesses thus undermine the vitality and viability of the area, having an adverse impact on it, and making them inconsistent with the Local Plan. We do not see how this could be open to dispute.
Evidence that ‘Big Four’ Convenience Stores Destroy the Vitality and Viability of Local Centres
Evidence shows that the opening of a convenience-size store by one of the so-called ‘big four’ supermarkets forces such independent local businesses to close. There is widespread anecdotal evidence of this from all over the UK, but there is also harder evidence in the findings of two major reports on the grocery sector. The 2005 report by the House of Commons All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group, High Street Britain 2015, showed this, noting that ‘the cessation of trading by many small retailers located close to national multiples seems inevitable’.
Tesco has sought to suggest that the recent Competition Commission Report on the grocery sector demonstrated that this was not the case. They have also, in the past, claimed that their presence in a shopping centre improves the vitality of the centre as a whole by increasing footfall (claiming that people who come to shop at Tesco then go to shop elsewhere). They are wrong on both counts.
The Competition Commission report notes that nearly a third of Britain’s independent convenience stores have been lost since 2000, and that the development of the convenience store format by the ‘big four’ supermarkets has occurred at exactly the same time. The report also says that consumer choice on a national level would be threatened ‘if Tesco continued to draw ahead of its competitors and accumulate positions of local market power’. At a local level, it notes that this has already happened in some areas. Consumer choice – the choice about where to shop – could only be threatened if the number of shops were reduced. In other words, the Competition Commission is saying that where Tesco has ‘positions of local market power’, consumer choice reduces because other shops go out of business.
As is well known, Tesco has over half the grocery market in Cambridge, making it the ninth most Tesco-dominated town in the UK. It is hard to imagine a more evident case of Tesco having a position of local market power. If the Competition Commission (and the All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group) are correct, a further increase in Tesco’s share of the market will inevitably put other shops out of business.
If Tesco open a store on Mill Road, the shops that will go out of business are going to be shops also on Mill Road. It is not hard to see why. Aside from the tactics used by Tesco, such as voucher schemes to draw customers away from other shops, the size of the proposed store and the sheer scale of the logistical operation that can be deployed by Tesco to support it mean that local stores would face closure. Tesco would be twice the size of the nearest convenience store (Londis); it would be twenty seven times the size of the greengrocer a few doors away. It would be ludicrous to suggest that a family-run, independent greengrocer, without the financial and logistical power of the UK’s largest supermarket chain, has a realistic prospect of survival if a Tesco store twenty seven times larger than it opens almost next door.
It is worth noting, too, that in their Planning Design and Access Statement, Tesco claim that the Mill Road store would primarily be intended for ‘top up’ shopping and that most customers would arrive on foot (sections 4.5 and 4.7). They thus expect the main source of trade to be shoppers they have drawn away from existing Mill Road stores.
The evidence shows that if Tesco open on Mill Road, the vitality and viability of Mill Road as a local centre will be significantly and negatively affected, contrary to the commitments in the Local Plan.
The Barnet Case
This is precisely the reason that Barnet Council turned down an application from Tesco to open an Express Store in March 2007. In refusing permission for Tesco to vary the existing planning conditions on a shop it had acquired, the Council said that the proposed Tesco Express
would have a significantly greater harmful impact on the vitality and viability of nearby town centres than the existing lawful use contrary to policy S1.1 of the Adopted Unitary Development Plan (1991), policies TCR1 and TCR7 of the Unitary Development Plan Draft Deposit Modifications (28/06/05), Policy 3D.1 of the Mayors London Plan (2004) and Planning Policy Statement 6.
It has been suggested to us that the cases are not comparable; we think this is clearly wrong. Of course there are some differences between the Barnet case and this one (for example, different local planning guidance will necessarily apply since it is in a different town). However, the key issue of comparability is that Barnet demonstrates that it is possible to refuse planning applications – even applications that, in planning terms, are very minor – when they pose a threat to the vitality and viability of the local shopping centre. In other words when considerations of vitality and viability are built into local planning guidance, as they are in Barnet and as they are in Cambridge, they become important to decisions about planning applications, even when these applications are not obviously large (in the sense that they are not large size, new build developments, for example). Irrespective of possible minor differences which we do not think are material to the comparability of the two cases, the Barnet case shows that it is possible to refuse an application (and to defend the refusal), when it poses such a threat, as it does here.
 ‘Retail developments’ means any matter relating to an actual or proposed retail site that requires planning consent, it does not only mean major developments, which are always specified as such.
 High Street Britain 2015, p. 27.
 The decline in independent convenience stores is taken from the Competition Commission Report, paragraph 3.27.
 Report Summary paragraph 2.