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Don't blame Tesco for the state of our high streets

Councils attacking Tesco over high streets should try looking in the mirror, writes Paul Finch

Let me first declare an interest: I sit on a design review panel which looks at a multi-phase residential and retail development by Tesco in Woolwich, which I have supported – having noted the lack of development and gradual decline of this once thriving town centre in the 20 years since I worked there, from 1972 to l994.

Today, Woolwich is a place transformed, partly because of new transport links, partly because of the Arsenal development, and partly because Tesco joined forces with Greenwich Council to undertake a long-term project including a new civic centre (completed), and a residential tower by Wilkinson Eyre (still to come, along with further residential phases).

It was disappointing to see the first phase attacked by the so-called ‘Carbuncle Cup’ coterie, because the development is a genuine attempt to do what is often advocated but rarely achieved: combine residential and supermarket uses with integrated energy strategies and with some attempt to create a new townscape (in this case masterplanned by Sheppard Robson).

People whose reaction to commercial success is knee-jerk criticism are to be found in all echelons of British life. In the past week it has been reported that a group of local authorities is trying to introduce legislation which would impose a levy on Tesco (which always seems to get named first) in order to ‘improve’ high streets in as yet ill-defined ways. The main thing is to beat up retailers (not the online ones, now serious competitors to physical stores) and raise taxes.

On which subject, it is worth noting the continuing hostility on the part of the Guardian newspaper to Tesco and all its works. A recent front-page shock, horror headline ‘revealed’ that the company was ‘sitting on’ sites that could house – wait for it – 15,000 people. There was no comparison with, say, the Ministry of Defence, health authorities or local councils. And no reference whatsoever to Tesco’s interest in mixed development, including housing. The Guardian waged a huge campaign against Tesco for its tax arrangements a while back, only for it to emerge that Guardian Media Group uses exactly the same arrangements itself. As a result, I always assume that attacks on Tesco by the paper are some kind of weird vendetta – brought on by being forced to look into the mirror labelled ‘Taxation strategies’, or possibly ‘Hypocrisy’.

Looking into another mirror, labelled ‘Dereliction of duty’, the councillors now beating up Tesco might note that it has been on their general watch that our high streets have run into trouble. The multiple reasons include absurd and expensive parking arrangements; ghastly municipal car parks, especially the multi-storey kind; absent-minded planning, which has encouraged all sorts of organisations from police to universities to move out of city centres; and occasionally the granting of planning permission for huge edge-of-town superstores while conducting hand-wringing exercises about their effect on city centres.

Even when Tesco and Sainsbury started building small stores in areas that could be reached by locals on foot, councillors and others of a more snobbish nature started moaning about their effect. By contrast, I heard a story the other day about a headship for a north London public school being cemented when the preferred candidate, asked at interview if he had any questions for governors, replied: ‘Where is the nearest Waitrose?’

In Ludlow, when Tesco dared to propose a store some distance from the middle of the historic town centre, there was uproar. Permission was achieved, but in order to get it, Tesco had to turn to a very good architect indeed – Richard MacCormac. RIP.

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