Wednesday 16 November 2011

The strange tale of Mrs Enid Jones

Last night's Week In, Week Out on BBC Wales told the story of a supermarket planning battle in Aberystwyth, where Tesco wants to build a superstore close to the town centre.

The site chosen is a council-owned car park which is surrounded on three sides by private housing (Cneifiwr sometimes parks there). Residents had known for a while that the council intended to redevelop the site as a supermarket, and Mrs Jones was not put off by that when she bought her house. In fact she indicated that her decision to buy was largely motivated by the thought of living close to the centre of town, so that in her old age she would be close to the shops and other facilities.

Ceredigion County Council invited expressions of interest, and eventually selected a submission from a property development company acting for Tesco. The report which went before the council's cabinet was exempted from publication under the Local Government Act 1972, meaning that the public could not see it and that councillors could not disclose its contents to the people they represent.

It turned out that the developers wanted not just the car park, but also 12 houses in one of the streets bordering the site. Those houses would be demolished to make way for Tesco.

Because the report was exempted, Tesco, the property developer and the Council knew what was being proposed, but the people of Mill Street whose homes would be bulldozed were kept in the dark. You might innocently think that although the council, Tesco and the developer had a very large financial interest in the deal, the people with the biggest interest in the proposals were Mrs Jones and the other home owners.

Mrs Jones and the other home owners became aware of what was happening when they were approached by a local estate agent offering to buy up their houses. Three of the 12 owners refused. Quite a few of the other houses were owned by buy-to-let landlords, Aberystwyth being a university town.

Mrs Jones was then subjected to a campaign of what amounted to harassment, with people calling at her property outside working hours, and attempts were made by the estate agent to bypass what they came to see as an obstinate woman by contacting her daughter on Facebook to ask her to talk sense into her mother.

Mrs Jones, it was clear from the programme, is a quiet woman who simply wants to lead an ordinary, quiet life. She would not see herself as an eco-warrior battling global capitalism.

The position now is stalemate, but the developer (Tesco is silent on the whole story) now wants the council to put procedures for compulsory purchase into motion.

Most people would consider compulsory purchase orders to be weapons of the last resort to be used sparingly and only in cases where there is some overriding public interest at stake (e.g. building a new hospital or some road projects). They most definitely should not be used to further the interests of supermarkets.

The story also highlights the perverse way in which Local Government exemptions sometimes work. Of course there are cases where confidentiality is vital, but local authority lawyers operate under the maxim "if in doubt, exempt it to be on the safe side", and their decisions are rarely challenged. In cases like this, the senior officers and councillors should have asked themselves how they would feel if they were in Mrs Jones's shoes. They should also have asked themselves when considering the public interest test whose interests they were protecting. Tesco, the developer and the council all knew the detail of what was being proposed; only the public were kept in the dark.

The programme included interviews with various people on the ins and outs of the supermarket debate, and unsurprisingly they found a range of opinions. The programme also cited a report produced by the University of Southampton which concludes that supermarkets in town centres can be beneficial to trade, but it should perhaps have mentioned that the report was commissioned by....Tesco.

The story may yet have a happy ending. The council seemed decidedly nervous about the compulsory purchase idea, and Ceredigion has some notoriously bolshy councillors who quite often show real independence of mind. But the problem is, of course, that little Ceredigion may well find itself waging a battle against an infinitely better resourced opponent.


Photon said...

What a story! The problem with thic confidentiality is the presumption that business interests somehow are always worthy of protection and must be put before all else.

How is the public interest test applied in such circumstances when real people's real homes are threatened, especially by potentially less-than-ideal compulsory purchase orders?

It's not surprising the council want to shy away from compulsion; there is a very real chance it may not be approved, not least because Tesco's business interests are not remotely relevant to the imperatives of the wider state.

caebrwyn said...

Sorry tale of typical Tesco tactics, hopefully Ceredigion will shy away from inappropriate Compulsory Puchase, and all I can really say is GO ENID!

Anonymous said...

hopefully this story will gather momentum and be made into a proper stand against the bully-boy tactics and arrogance of the supermarkets

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Councillors in these meetings have to vote to discuss matters in private. There are occasions when officers will seek to hide behind confidentiality when it is not appropriate. I have personally challenged and voted against having matters discussed in private. Perhaps the bolshie Ceredigion Cllrs need to challenge the need for confidentiality.

Cneifiwr said...

Diolch am y sylwadau o Wrecsam! I'm not sure about Ceredigion, but in Carmarthenshire officers recommend exemptions well in advance of meetings, and the vote is just a formality. Lawyers are not infallible, but too often councillors treat them as if they were.

eurwen said...

Do look at Ceredigion Cllr Alun Williams' blogspot. It's not only Mrs Jones' street that's threatened with demolition, but the Park Avenue Daycentre for elderly and disabled people and related groups (Arthritis Care, Visually Impaired, Gateway Club for people with learning difficulties). An emergency group has been established to fight this demolition and Mrs Jones supports it. A petition with 4,000+ signatures is to be presented to Ceredigion Council on 6 December at 9.45am when Cabinet next meets. Silent vigils are held in protest each Saturday at Park Ave, 2-3pm. All welcome.