Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sainsbury's plan features in The Guardian

A SUPERMARKET plan for Dorridge features in today's Guardian newspaper.

Click the headline or link below to read the rest of this story.

A feature by John Harris looks at battles against supermarket developments by the "Big Four".

Harris is a renowned music journalist and regularly writes about Labour politics.

The section on Dorridge reads:

"A week later, I arrive in Dorridge, a Midlands village off the M40, with a population of just under 8,000. There are manicured lawns, polished cars and a very suburban kind of quiet. Thanks to a looming upgrade to the Chiltern main line, the trains that leave for Marylebone from the railway station will soon take only 90 minutes: property prices are inevitably very high. Dorridge is also where Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury's, grew up.

In among its well-heeled splendour, there is one problem: over the road from the obligatory Tesco Express is a modest-sized but pretty horrible-looking shopping centre called Forest Court, put up in the mid-1960s. It was bought by Sainsbury's in 2008 for £18m, and early last year it put in a planning application for a 25,000 sq ft supermarket. "It looked horrendous," one local tells me. "Just a normal Sainsbury's superstore: a massive orange box dropped in the middle of a residential area." Like campaigners in Frome and Sheringham, local people had big worries about impossible levels of traffic – and still do. But the company wants a big return on its investment: it continues to aim for a store that would reportedly have a turnover of £24m and serve a catchment area of 25,000 people – most of whom currently use one of at least seven supermarkets within a five-mile radius.

Thus was born Drovs, Dorridge Residents Opposed To A Village Superstore, a dozen of whose activists meet me in the big village pub to talk me through the story so far. One of their leaflets is based on drawings by an independent architect. "We have been working on an alternative plan that includes separate retail units," it says, "but with a smaller supermarket (big enough for a weekly shop) and an overall design that we think is more appropriate for the present village environment." The word they use is "modest" – though, as I point out, modern capitalism does not tend to approve of words like that.

In March 2010, Sainsbury's first proposal was rejected by Solihull metropolitan borough council's planning committee by nine votes to nil, against the advice of council officers. But having bought the shopping centre, Sainsbury's wasn't about to go away. In response, it staged events where residents were invited to spend a morning voicing their opinions, hosted by a company called Meeting Magic. According to Drovs, these were a "complete charade", where insult was added to injury by the claim that everything was about "conflict resolution".

"I said, 'What is the conflict?'" recalls Larry Sayer, a retired engineer, "and it was obvious: Dorridge residents against Sainsbury's." By way of allaying hostility, Sainsbury's also offered to fund the extension and refurbishment of the village doctors' surgery.

Its latest pitch is less brutalist, and 15% smaller, though the people I meet are still hostile, not least because of its rooftop car park. I can see their point: even under the latest proposal, the village would effectively become the soft scenery around the supermarket. "It'll become Sainsbury's on Chiltern," says Matthew Walker, a 36-year-old copywriter. "It won't be Dorridge any more."

And how has Sainsbury's been to deal with? "Patronising, I'd say," says Bryan Hunt, a construction project manager who is one of the group's planning experts. "They've gone through the motions. They'll listen where they think they can do some cosmetic massaging, but that's it. They'll get what they want."

Stokes Croft and Sheringham may have fallen. In Frome, we're in a phoney war, waiting for a planning application that could arrive tomorrow, or in five years' time. But in Dorridge, everything is a matter of high stakes and great urgency. Sainsbury's latest planning application will be heard in October; in the meantime, Drovs has to persuade councillors the plan is still far too big.

In the centre of the village, I meet someone who is a little less concerned. Tony Craig owns Dorridge Butchers, once based in the old shopping centre, now relocated with Sainsbury's help. "The village needs this," he says. Does he not fear losing business? He is, after all, a species endangered by the Big Four's seemingly unstoppable rise. "I'm an independent butcher," he assures me. "We hold our own. We've got that independent touch. And anyway, Sainsbury's will bring more footfall. I'll pick up a few of those people as well."

Not for the first time, I'm reminded of the Turkish proverb: "When the axe came into the woods, the trees all said, 'Well, at least the handle is one of us.'"

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