Saturday 13 July 2013

Supermarket Sweep

It has been quite a while since this blog looked at the whacky world of supermarket planning battles, but Cneifiwr's attention has been drawn to the role played by the allegedly "independent" consultants who advise both local authorities and the supermarket companies on retail planning matters.

Parochial as ever, let's begin with a quick sweep of what has been going on locally.

Newcastle Emlyn

The battle here culminated in September 2011 when the County Council's planning committee voted by a narrow margin (Labour and Independent councillors in cahoots as usual) to approve an application for a supermarket on the site currently occupied by Cawdor Cars and a public car park.

Much of the battle revolved around retail impact studies produced by Nathaniel Lichfield Partners (NLP) for the council. One of the key documents submitted by NLP to the council was headed "New Forest District Council" and concluded, among other things, that the Somerfield store in town (now Co-op) could afford to lose £1.7 million in turnover to a new supermarket. Another NLP report estimated the store's turnover at £530,000.

Despite this and numerous other glaring errors, the council's planners declared that they had no reason to doubt NLP's findings.

A complaint that NLP was treating turnover of shops within the Newcastle Emlyn catchment area as leaking from the catchment area was dismissed by the senior planning officer as standard practice.

Together Newcastle Emlyn and Adpar have a population of about 1,500. The town serves a number of surrounding villages, and as many readers will know, it already has a supermarket as well as a Co-op, a Spar and a number of independent retailers.

Despite that, NLP concluded that the town could sustain both a Lidl discount store and a supermarket on the Cawdor site with a floorspace as big as all the other existing retailers put together.

What happened next was that Lidl got cold feet and pulled out, and as far as we know, there is no queue of supermarkets clamouring to get a piece of the action on the Cawdor site.

In other words, the market's response to the NLP findings that there was a pot of gold waiting to be claimed in Newcastle Emlyn has been deafening silence.


Up in Aberystwyth a battle involving Tesco's and M&S continues to rumble on. The likelihood that Ceredigion County Council will have to resort to using a Compulsory Purchase Order to evict Mrs Enid Jones from her home to make way for the supermarket appears to be growing. See BBC report here.


The farce continues, with plans by Sainsbury's to open a large new store still on hold because of land stability issues (subsidence was also a major issue in Newcastle Emlyn).

Tesco's responded to the Sainsbury's application by seeking a major extension of its own store. Tesco's strategy appeared to be based on the old-fashioned negotiation tactic of demanding far more than it knew it would get in the expectation of getting what it really wanted, and quite possibly rather more.

NLP was used to advise the council on both applications, and Tesco eventually got what it had wanted.

Anyone familiar with the town will know that neither of these two developments has taken place. The reasons for Tesco's delays are not altogether clear, but a staffer told Cneifiwr that the site also suffered from.... stability problems. Or perhaps the store group is biding its time and waiting to see what happens to Sainsbury's.


If you haven't been to this once proud market and county town for a while, you are in for a shock. The town centre may as well have been targeted by the Luftwaffe following the opening of a smart new retail centre next to Withybush Hospital out of town. Guess who advised the county council on a Regeneration Framework for the town back in 2008.


Sainsbury's also came unstuck in Llandeilo, and eventually withdrew even though the County Council had obligingly passed the application for a large new store there.

The size, location and product mix proposed for the Sainsbury's store were extraordinary, but despite this NLP recommended that it should be given the go-ahead. In their enthusiasm, councillors also approved a second Sainsbury's store in Cross Hands against the advice of NLP.

A Cosy World

For anyone who has witnessed a major planning dispute, one of the things which rapidly becomes evident is just how small the world of council planners, agents and planning consultants is. Everybody knows everybody, and often for the good reason that there is a well worn path beaten by former council planning officers taking up employment with the poachers.

NLP operates across the UK, and advises many councils on individual planning applications and local development plans. It also derives a large part of its income from advising supermarkets in planning applications.

On its website you can read:

NLP provide a wide range of planning, design and economic services to Tesco Stores Limited throughout the country. Our role involves assisting Tesco to deliver new and extended stores across the UK, from ‘Extra’ stores in complex town centre developments, to ‘Express’ convenience stores.  NLP also updates Tesco on changes in planning policy and advises on implications for their trading operations and development aspirations.

The firm likes to give the impression that it operates a Chinese wall to separate its work for supermarkets from its work for local authorities, but it seems that work is allocated on a case by case basis, rather than to dedicated teams. And as an employee trust, both the firm and the staff benefit financially no matter who the client is.

NLP has said that it carries out checks to ensure there is no conflict of interest in given geographical areas where it might otherwise run the risk of working for both a council and a supermarket.

NLP is regulated by an august body called The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), which has a code of conduct outlawing conflicts of interest.

The problem is that, as is so often the case in Britain, the regulator is not independent either. NLP's chairman is a Fellow of the RTPI, and many of the RTPI's board of trustees are commercial planning consultants. NLP sponsors an annual RTPI lecture and has been given RTPI awards.


Anonymous said...

NLP is also an abbreviation for neuro linguistic programming. Are they messing with their heads or ours?

Anonymous said...

When haven't they!!

Maybe NLP will help them actually do their job better!!

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't the RTPI clarify its position through example by discipline of their members?

If so many applications are tainted with more than a whiff of potential corruption due to actual conflict of interest, then, LIKE THE BANKS, then surely the entire industry needs to change?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately an "investigation" by RTPI has whitewashed them.
Local government ombudsman perhaps?

planningmad said...

The planning system is a monopoly and controlled by cronyism. I have hard evidence of a criminal cover up by the RTPI so as to protect senior officers from exposure. The RTPI do not enforce the Code of Conduct and the whole idea of standards is a sham. So much is corruption in local government and planning agencies that it is only a matter of time before it will be an embarrassment to be British