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Public Inquiry Speech – our opening statement

[This was followed by our Planning Statement which will be online in due course. This speech below was to set the tone for why we exist.]

I would like to make a brief statement explaining to the inquiry the reason for the existence of the No Mill Road Tesco campaign, before handing over to my colleague Dr Deyermond, who will cover the campaign’s planning objections to Tesco’s applications.

After all, as a Planning Inspector you visit many towns, making decisions in accordance with national and local planning policy. For someone representing Tesco, this is simply another relatively small store in another street in another town. Next week, no doubt, there will be another case involving another store in another street in another town.

For us, though, this is our town, and our community, and we think it is worth fighting for.

The fact that Cambridge is a special place hardly needs saying. Iconic images of Kings College, of dons scurrying around in mortar boards, of hordes of cycling students have adorned many a teatowel. There is another aspect to Cambridge, however, which is rarely discovered by tourists, but which is equally valued by local residents. That other aspect is Mill Road. The Daily Telegraph recently described Mill Road as “perhaps Britain’s most internationally eclectic street“, and they did so with good reason. Although hard to verify, many believe that Mill Road is actually the longest street of independent businesses remaining in the country. Small, independent retailers from all over the world can be found along the street, and it is they who in large part form the hub of the vibrant and diverse community in Mill Road.

We, as a community, do all we can to protect these small businesses. Every year there is the Mill Road Winter Fair, for example; a celebration of the wide range of independent shops that make the character of Mill Road so special. Speaking in my capacity as a member of the Winter Fair committee, I would like to comment briefly on a statement by the appellants yesterday to the effect that Mill Road is not a through road – it is indeed regarded as a major trunk route into the city by the County Council, to the extent that the Mill Road Winter Fair is not allowed to close the road for a few hours once a year, such is the importance of the route. In another example of local residents’ desire to enhance the street, this year, we hope to declare Mill Road a plastic bag free zone. These are not initiatives imposed by some faceless Head Office, they are led by the community. By this community.

No wonder, then, that High Street Britain: 2015, the report produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Small Shops, made the following comment, “The erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the social glue that binds communities together”, before warning that if the expansion of the Big 4 is not controlled, high streets across Britain could lose all their small, independent shops within the next 10 years.

The 15 existing independent grocery stores on Mill Road can certainly look forward to a precarious future if up to £2.9 million a year is lost from their turnover (the figure that the lowest performing category of a Tesco Express expects to make). The creation of 2 full time jobs, outlined in Tesco’s submission regarding this store, will be scant comfort to employees of existing shops forced to close.

Plans are underway to recognise Mill Road formally as an Independent Business Zone, which would be an official recognition of the importance of those independent businesses. Another zone is already in place. Since May of this year, Mill Road has been a Cumulative Impact Zone, reversing the presumption in the granting of alcohol licences and making it virtually impossible for Tesco, or any other retailer new to Mill Road, to sell alcohol.

Although the absurdity of the Tesco delivery proposals was well outlined by Cllr Bourke yesterday, and Dr Deyermond will cover in more detail the campaign’s planning objections to the applications, I wish briefly to mention previous servicing arrangements for the site, as I appear to be the only person here who has actually spoken to the previous occupants, Wilco. They confirmed to me that they received one delivery per week, in a Transit van, made to the rear of the site. This would seem entirely in keeping with the servicing needs of a small motorists’ supplies shop. It has been asserted by various parties here that the existing planning condition has been breached but I have yet to see any evidence of that.

So, in the context of a street whose character is loved and appreciated both by local residents and by many people outside Cambridge who visit regularly to buy goods which cannot be found elsewhere in the region, perhaps it was not altogether surprising that when Tesco’s original planning applications became public knowledge, and I choose my words carefully as there was no public consultation, over 5,000 people signed a petition asking the Council to refuse them permission.

These people included many otherwise loyal Tesco shoppers (after all, with 8 Tesco-branded stores in Cambridge already, and a further 5 Tesco-owned One Stop shops, shopping at Tesco is not difficult). They included Tesco shareholders and Tesco employees, some of whom had used their lunchbreak to travel from the nearby Tesco superstore to sign the petition. What all these people had in common was the certainty that Mill Road is the wrong place for a Tesco Express.

Over 1,000 people took the time to write to the Council expressing their opposition to Tesco’s plans. No doubt Councillors from the East Area Committee would be able to confirm how many of their electorate also got in touch with them individually. The strength of community feeling was huge, and centred around the desire to protect the character of Mill Road.

In purely planning terms, of course, being certain that Mill Road is not the right place for a Tesco Express has no weight. As my colleague Dr Deyermond will explain, however, there are extremely solid planning grounds which meant the applications needed to be refused.

Before handing over to her, I would like to end with a direct quote from Tesco’s corporate responsibility website. On it, they say very clearly that “We need to listen and respond to communities throughout [the planning] process”. We agree. As a community, our message to Tesco has been very clear over the last year, but for some reason they have neither listened nor responded. Perhaps this will be the stage of the planning process when they finally hear what we are saying.

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