A tale of two Tescos

Two years ago I dropped in at a shop near Greenford Station. I hadn’t been there in a while and as I paid I asked if the rumours were true that a Tesco Express, a small branch of the large supermarket chain, was going to open a few doors away. “Yes” said the proprietor, taking a letter from under the counter and holding it towards me, “you need to start a petition.” It was January 2013. The planning notification letter was dated September 2012, which is when I’d first heard the rumours. I smiled through gritted teeth and tried to feel flattered. The downside to involvement with local campaigns is that people assume you’ll start one about any issue that concerns them. And run it.

The planning application related to an existing grocery business, owned by a couple who had run it for about thirty years. They wanted to retire because they were both in ill health and the best deal turned out to be that on offer from Tesco. Supermarket chains are on the lookout for prime locations for small branches which allow them to continue expanding their reach in a difficult economic climate. For the moment out-of-town superstores are out, small and local shops are in. The reaction to this has been mixed. In the case of Tesco there has often been outright hostility and a website, Tescopoly is devoted to campaigns against the supermarket giant. Residents are concerned about a constant flow of large delivery vehicles, as well as the impact on parking and local distinctiveness. Existing businesses fear the loss of custom to a company offering a “one stop shop”. Someone dropping into a Tesco Express or Sainsbury’s Local or Morrisons M Local might be willing to pay slightly more for a bunch of flowers or a can of beer if it saves them from having to go somewhere else after buying food. In the case of the shops in Oldfield Lane North it would mean not having to drop into three other grocery shops, an off licence, a greengrocer, a florist, a bakery and two newsagents. Something cheap and frozen might replace a take away so three other premises (Chinese, fish and chips, pizza) could also be affected.

Many of the traders running those shops had worked this out rather late in the day. They assumed that the owner of the existing business was making the planning application to extend his premises to the rear and incorporate an adjoining shop on his own behalf. Tesco has become adept at getting the permission required for this kind of expansion past residents and neighbouring businesses. In the case of the branch in Oldfield Lane North many of those who received the notification letter did not examine the details of the application online. This is yet another situation where those with a limited understanding of or access to the internet are at a disadvantage and those intent on pushing through planning applications make full use of it. Had they done so the word “Tesco” would have alerted them to what was really going on. I was asked if I felt there was still a chance to challenge the application which I thought was the case because the builders hadn’t arrived yet. Without quite knowing how I found myself behind the counter of their shop, drafting an email to local councillors on their behalf, outlining all the reasons why the Tesco Express would be a bad idea, the loss of custom for traders already coping with a drop in footfall, problems caused by deliveries and an increased demand for parking. Jobs could be lost and the revenue that was circulating within the area, where these traders lived and worked, would go to a company based elsewhere. My personal concern was that it could lead to further expansion and the demolition of the attractive red brick parade. Architecture of that kind is often disregarded until it has disappeared.

A petition was shared and signed by over a hundred people. I offered to set up a Facebook page which I would hand over to the traders to run themselves and took photos for it. The template for a leaflet was required ASAP so that it could be photocopied and delivered the next morning. I crawled back to the shop in question at an ungodly hour only to discover that fear and doubt had set in. It seemed that some of their loyal customers wanted to earn loyalty card points at a Tesco on their doorstep. They couldn’t see the problem and the proprietor didn’t want to offend customers who had not been that loyal lately. In some shops there was a conflict between those who understood that it was a fight for survival and those who were fearful of upsetting an already dwindling number of patrons. The rest had resigned themselves to the situation. The Facebook page notched up two likes at the time and no one approached me to take it on.
It was extraordinary to watch this happening in the same area where a small number of shopkeepers had forced out a council sponsored market that had been present in Greenford Broadway during 2012, mounting an aggressive campaign against it, presenting a petition and attracting local media attention. By contrast the shopkeepers near Greenford Station seemed afraid to fight. I let the local press know about their petition and was astounded when I found that local Labour Party activists, in the run up to local elections, had scooped it up and presented it to the council on behalf of the traders before any more signatures could be collected. The three Conservative councillors for Greenford Green ward, who would not be standing again, had nothing to say on the matter, in fact they had stopped answering emails about any issues at all. I doubt if the borough’s Liberal Democrats and Greens are able to point to Greenford on a map. Ealing Labour made all the right noises but argued that it was a fait accompli and that local residents wanted a Tesco Express. It would have been a surprise if the Labour run council didn’t want it too as Tesco come bearing gifts when they make this kind of application. They seem to have their own team of pavement builders and tree planters on standby.

Compare this with the recent reaction to the news that a Tesco Express might open in another part of the borough, in Ealing Green. I asked Andy Long, a local resident, how and when he and his neighbours first become aware of the planning application. “In early October, days before the consultation was due to end.   The proposal was for a Tesco Express, but the two planning applications were for obscure changes which would enable the store to happen. Tesco was not mentioned on the applications, so nobody knew what the overall proposal actually was.   We quickly spread the news so that people could object and make comments. As a result of the public reaction and the involvement of politicians, Ealing Council to its credit extended the consultation period and put up larger notices around the site to alert people to the planning applications. Councillors Gareth Shaw and Binda Rai in Walpole Ward leafleted the area twice and residents themselves also put out leaflets. Support came from a wider area. For example, people in Northfields and other areas who have direct experience of the problems of deliveries to these stores put in objections. Students from the University of West London (UWL) also put in objections because they appreciate the community feeling of local shops such as Anne’s Store. That shop, for example, as well as serving hundreds of students daily, also delivers groceries to elderly and disabled people. DJs Kenzo and the Wolf on UWL’s Blast Radio, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year and operates out of Ealing Studios, shouted out on their show and made a radio documentary on the subject.”

The local community realised the negative impact that the proposed shop might have on their area. “A convenience store like a Tesco Express clearly cannot work in that location. (In this case it is Tesco, but a Sainsbury Local, or a Morrisons M Local, or a little Aldi, Lidl, Waitrose, all would have intensive and frequent deliveries and cannot work here). For your readers, the site is just up from the University of West London (UWL) campus and opposite the YMCA on St Mary’s Road where Ealing Green begins. You pass it driving from South Ealing to Ealing Broadway. Lorries will unload on double-yellow lines just where the road narrows. Because the 65 and UWL buses frequently stop on the other side of the road, the road will become single-lane and cause congestion at peak times as well as be dangerous for traffic which will have to drive across the centre line. Lorries have never unloaded at this site before and there has been no traffic modelling to show how bad the traffic jams will be on this busy road. This is a conservation area which should have strong protection, but the only way to get the large roll-cages from the (dangerously parked) lorry into the shop is by cutting through railings which are part of the heritage of Ealing Green. They then have to go down quite a slope which is really dangerous for passing pedestrians and Tesco employees as these cages can cause crush injuries or overturn on slopes. The site at the moment has a laundrette and four units as restaurants. It is a tiny, local corner, not on a high street, has never had such intensive use and is in a residential area. The noise and nuisance will be way beyond anything that has ever existed. There will be intolerable pressure on parking on the streets around and of course on the main road where people will chance a few minutes parked on the double-yellow lines, therefore increasing the danger.”
Andy and his neighbours believe that a Tesco Express would be out of place in Ealing Green. “It is the wrong kind of business in the wrong place and if you spend a few moments there you realise just how absurd an idea it is. Adding to the absurdity, to make the store a viable size, Tesco will have to convert a residential flat to make up the space. When throughout London there is intense pressure to create more homes, here Tesco will extinguish a home without offering an alternative elsewhere! It is a wonder and a mystery why this proposal has gone so far. It violates many local and national planning policies and should obviously be rejected.”

The support from local politicians has been good. “Angie Bray is the local MP and she was quick off the mark in seeing that the failed public consultation was a genuine and serious matter. She came to see local residents and heard their concerns. The issue of consultation has been the driving force as the underlying problem is that the public is at a huge disadvantage to the developer. The public will have at best a few weeks only to respond to a proposal while the developer has had months of preparation. Despite the Tesco proposal being worked on behind the scenes for months, there are huge gaps, mistakes, illogicalities and other flaws in its case. Because locals know the site better than a company which is opening three Express stores a week all over the country, we can help the council’s planning department reach the right decision by having a much better appreciation of what can and cannot work. What has been really heartening in our case is that, irrespective of party, local councillors have been involved and put in their own objections. Likewise, just as Angie Bray quickly involved herself, so did Rupa Huq who is the Labour Party candidate in the 2015 general election for the seat now held by Angie Bray. This is not a party-political matter.”

Why is there such a difference in the way residents around Oldfield Lane North and Ealing Green reacted to the prospect of a local Tesco Express? Perhaps a greater sense of community and solidarity exists amongst residents and shopkeepers in Ealing. Both areas have a proportion of people who are only living there for a few years but in Ealing they tend to be students who are conscious of the impact of Tesco in the places they come from and through social media campaigns. I feel an important factor could be that residents of Ealing Green have higher expectations of the shops in their area which are usually met by their local traders. It’s hard to remain loyal to a business that’s found to have low hygiene standards, as was the case with one of the shops in Oldfield Lane North. It may be that residents in Greenford are less likely to drop into shops within walking distance of their homes, preferring to fill the boot of the car with shopping once a week. It is probable that an increasing number of residents never buy at the small shops metres away from their homes. They drive from the door of their home to that of a supermarket and back again.

As for the response from the shopkeepers themselves, I still find it hard to believe that they didn’t put up more of a fight. Some had just renewed their leases or were about to and are now obliged to compete with an international brand. Their relationship with the owner of the premises taken over by Tesco probably made it difficult to criticise him, especially as he is in poor health. The only trader who seems to have survived relatively unaffected is the greengrocer who makes an effort to attract and retain customers with his standards of stock, presentation and cleanliness. The truth is that residents now have a far wider range of options when it comes to buying groceries, they don’t even have to leave home to buy them if they have internet access. They can pick up small items on the way home from work rather than taking the chance that what they want will be available in the distance between Greenford Station and home.
The Oldfield Lane North Tesco Express opened in October 2013, an event attended by members of the local branch of the Royal British Legion, drawn by a donation.  Some of the problems I had predicted became evident immediately. There was a noticeable drop in footfall for the established shops. The newly built parking bays are in almost constant day time use, often by large vehicles delivering stock to the Tesco Express, denying access to vans making deliveries to other shops. This has, on occasion, caused backlogs of traffic all the way to Greenford Flyover. The branch has been an overwhelming success, in fact those running it have a hard time keeping up with the demand for its goods, hence the constant stream of deliveries. You have to squeeze past members of staff in the cramped aisles as they rush to restock shelves. It has undoubtedly drawn custom from those who would not have visited the parade in the past, especially those able to park outside it. Some customers are disappointed to find that it doesn’t provide the range available in its larger stores. Others love the fact that they can buy bags of ready-to-eat rocket on the way home from work.

In the year since it opened the bakery on the corner of Oldfield Lane North and Hill Rise closed following a fire. It had been suffering from a drop in custom like many of the other shops and has yet to reopen, although there are signs that this may happen soon. One of the nice new trees was vandalised within weeks of being planted (it hasn’t been replaced) and I’ve noticed a wonky slab in the new pavement. The neon Tesco sign is reflected in the windows across the street from 6am until 11pm every day, and between those hours the hard pressed security staff face all the problems with shoplifters that the previous proprietor did. The self service tills are showing signs of strain.

A smart branch of a Polish supermarket has now opened across the road in what used to be a car showroom, forced out by a rise in rent. It will be interesting to see if established residents are willing to shop there. While I wonder if the area can sustain another shop selling Polish goods I welcome a challenger to Tesco who seem to dominate this part of the borough. It’s hard to do a large weekly shop at a supermarket other than one run by them. They have a Metro branch near Greenford Broadway and a superstore at the Hoover Factory in Perivale. Other companies such as Iceland and Lidl have much smaller footholds. Greenford doesn’t make the grade for Waitrose. The proposed enlargement of the Metro Branch into a superstore is on hold while the economy is in difficulty but if it goes ahead the traffic will worsen in Greenford Road.. Tesco vans seem to be everywhere, making hundreds of journeys to and from a depot in Oldfield Lane North. One was involved in a fatal accident in Rockware Avenue in 2012.
The fight to stop a Tesco Express from opening in Ealing Green continues. Greenford has given up the struggle. All that’s left of the campaign to “Stop Greenford Tesco Express” is a Facebook page with six likes and the lingering belief that the campaign was all my idea…

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2014 except comments © Andy Long 2014. Please do not reproduce without permission. All rights reserved. Do not add any of these images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.