Sunday, 13 March 2011

If at first you don't succeed ...

On Wednesday 2 March, at the third time of asking, Bristol City Council approved an application for a superstore on the the Bristol City Football Club site at Ashton Gate.

The first application by Tesco was withdrawn following an independent report that found there was no need for a new store (we already have an Asda, a Sainsburys, an Aldi, a Lidl, two small Tescos and an Iceland). The second application by Sainsbury's was recommended for approval by the planners but turned down by the councillors for unacceptable level of development, unacceptable increase in traffic and detrimental influence on local retail. Sainsbury's lodged an appeal against the first decision, while at the same time submitting a second revised application. This was recommended for refusal by the planners, on grounds of retail impact, but finally approved by the councillors, for reasons which were not obviously apparent to me on the night and are still to be published by the council.
This decision, in my opinion, is wrong for so many reasons. We don't need a new store, and certainly not one billed as the largest superstore in the southwest. It poses a real threat to our local high streets (trade diversion anything from the applicant's 3% figure to the independent consultant's 7% figure). It will lead to an increase in traffic (anything from the 20% predicted by the applicant to a possible 65% predicted by another consultant) and encourage car dependency. It will have an adverse effect on the quality of the lives of the residents adjacent to the store. It will lead to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. It will encourage reliance on food produced hundreds, even thousands, of miles away rather than local produce. It will not deliver the number of jobs promised and may eventually lead to lower employment in the are. It is ultimately not future proof.

I've been involved with the Stop Sainsbury's campaign and its predecessors (Berate and Basics) since July 2009. I'm no expert in planning law, retail development, environmental science etc but I've worked alongside people who are, to mount a campaign against all three applications. I've leafleted flats. I've stood on the street engaging with passers by. I've emailed my MP and councillors on numerous occasions. I've blogged about it. I've made placards and demonstrated. I've invested time, money and emotion. And then came the decision on 2 March.

It hit me harder than I thought and is the reason I haven't blogged for over a week now. I couldn't bring myself to write about it but neither could I let it pass without comment. I couldn't have campaigned against these applications had I not been convinced that they were wrong and I guess I find it hard to accept that there are other people, including friends and acquaintances, who can't see how potentially damaging this superstore will be, not just to our local community, but to all our futures. We can no longer go on doing business as usual. However my greatest disappointment is in the people who couldn't care one way or another, who refuse to engage, who are prepared to allow events to take their course, who can't see the point in becoming involved. I just don't understand them.

Of course it's not all over yet. The decision, which is contrary to the council's own Local Plan(!) is automatically referred to the Secretary of State for approval and the call has gone out to all Stop Sainsbury's supporters to write to him asking him to 'call it in'. There are grounds for this. All 5 of the LibDem councillors on the committee were substituted less than a week before the date of the meeting to save them from a repeat of the abuse and intimidation they suffered following the hearing of the first application. Too much weight was given to the enabling argument (the sale of the old stadium ground to Sainsbury's will help finance the construction of a new stadium on Greenbelt land!). It is contrary not only to Bristol's Local Plan but also to National Policy and Bristol's emerging Core Strategy. The reports were inadequate and the traffic assessment was flawed.
Appealing to the Secretary of State is a long shot but well worth taking. If Sainsbury's can keep coming back, then so can we.

Besides, even I'm able to concede that it's not all been doom and gloom. This campaign has been instrumental in my forming new friendships, becoming more involved in the local community and renewing my passion for localism. It has also prompted me to do something I should perhaps have done much earlier ie renounce my membership of the Labour Party and join the Greens!

Never give up!