Jonathan Adams unpicks the latest assault of the supermarket chain on mid Wales
Tesco announced late last week that it was to withdraw its planning application for a large new store in Machynlleth. It was a moment of triumph and relief felt by many in that community and many others who have been watching from the sidelines, hoping that the independent spirit of the town would hold fast against the inexorable spread of Tesco’s corporate web, and hoping indeed that the one successful act of resistance might inspire others.
However, the respite was brief. The announcement of the withdrawal of the planning application was followed smoothly by an insistence that they would ‘revisit’ their proposals so that “all issues are resolved”. These mainly concern the unacceptable impact of a large-scale increase of traffic on the town centre.
A planning application is meant to be a technical process. Proposals cannot be refused arbitrarily. Major applications must fulfil onerous criteria, and decisions can only be reached by reference to published policies. Unless, that is, elected council members ignore the advice of their officers.
On the evidence of other Tesco initiatives, that is what could still happen in Machynlleth. Despite not complying with Powys Council’s own Unitary Development Plan, and its apparently blatant disregard for the design requirements of the Welsh Government’s Technical Advice Note 12, for the survival of independent retail in the small town centre, and for the safety of road users and pedestrians, a number of Town Councillors were prepared to go public with their support for the project. As regards Powys Council – they have already given consent for new Tesco stores at Newtown, Llandrindod Wells and Welshpool.
Once Tesco has set it sights on a particular development, the received wisdom has it, it will never give up. From across the UK there are reports of council leaders conceding support for Tesco schemes, despite ample grounds for refusal, on the basis that “They would only appeal, and keep on appealing, and when they eventually win, the costs will bankrupt us”.
In Machynlleth the local press has taken delight in the way that the proposals seem to have divided the population of the town. An undercurrent of resentment towards ‘eco-campaigners’ – obviously ‘incomers’, for the most part – has suddenly found open expression in the form of a Welsh-language pro-Tesco poster campaign. This unexpected development was greeted with glee by Tesco and much soul-searching on the part of the growing eco-community, whose sincere intent is to preserve everything they see as being distinctive about the town.
From purely objective architectural and urban-planning viewpoints, the scheme is a shocker. Those who offer resigned support, on the grounds that Tesco will always get its way, and that, regardless of the local opposition, ‘the store will be crowded on a Saturday’, really should look more closely at this particular case. Tesco have attempted to establish a ‘need’ for their store (as required by the planning application process) by polling residents of the town and, significantly also of outlying neighbourhoods, and recording the numbers that currently drive to Aberystwyth or Newtown to find a superstore. They imply that the same residents should be able to shop in Machynlleth instead.
This disregards the fact that Aberystwyth and Newtown both have six times the population of Machynlleth. The impact of a 20,000 square foot Tesco in Machynlleth will be immeasurably greater than its impact would be in a town six times the size. Its size would not only erase the viability margins of many local independent businesses, but also shift the centre of gravity of the town permanently. The town’s economic life would soon fall into orbit around it. It would become a ‘Tesco Town’ by implantation.
The design of the building firmly rejects the notion that a new development should respect and complement the character of an existing settlement. Instead, like all current Tesco stores, it is a low-slung box with flat panelled walls. Ironically, the only concessions to its locality are the roof-mounted Cameron-style windmills, ostensibly a nod to the Centre for Alternative Technology, the famous local institution which is presumably seen by the store’s Cardiff-based designers as the main distinctive feature of the town.
The building is set back from Heol y Doll, the narrow twisting road that leads up to the station from the town centre. The first view that the shopper gets on making the sharp turn into the site is of a large car park – inevitably the largest in the town. The store sits behind it, squeezed into the space between the backs of houses, on a site once occupied by the yard of a builders’ merchant.
The design specifically eschews the Heol y Doll street frontage, leaving an awkward gap which the expansive entrance ‘bell-mouth’ only partly spans. This new junction would initially be the most obvious sign of an alien presence in the town. It requires overhead traffic lights – of the kind more often seen on city ring roads – to control the greatly increased flow of traffic, and in particular the regular movement of articulated lorries into and out of the Tesco site.
All the indications are that the increased traffic will introduce a level of pollution, noise and physical danger that, regardless of the impact of the store itself, would be enough to change the character of the town significantly for the worse. It is concern over the traffic impact that has, on this occasion, led highways officers at the Welsh Government to direct Powys Council to reject the current application.
So with a couple of days to spare before the meeting of the planning committee, Tesco pulled its application, and took it away to “resolve the issues”. Is there a type of large store that the town could properly accommodate, without compromising its character or the future of any of its independent businesses? It is just possible that something of the kind could be made to work, to the benefit of all. But as long as the mighty Tesco ‘sky-sign’ floats over its drab parapets, one fears that distinctiveness, diversity and the health of the local economy will all be considered dispensable.