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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 08:07 GMT 09:07 UK
Tesco fuels passions in Norfolk town
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News, Norfolk

A sign in the window of bookseller Bertram Watts in Sheringham
Opponents say the town's distinct flavour is under threat

Although it has not been used for regular train journeys since 1964, Sheringham's Victorian railway station has been lovingly preserved.

In a waiting room which would be recognisable to fans of Brief Encounter, you can enjoy a cup of tea and wait for the steam train service to nearby Holt.

This is a part of North Norfolk conscious of its history and keen to retain its identity.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Tesco's plan to open a supermarket here has caused controversy.

Passions roused

But the passions aroused - on both sides - by the retailer's proposals are still a genuine surprise to outsiders.

"I don't want to see a Tesco in Sheringham," says James Wright, a director of ironmongers Blyth & Wright, a family-owned business which has been serving customers from its High Street location for more than 100 years.

"Tesco is not an ogre we are trying to hold back.
Pam Blyth, local businesswoman

"Tesco is too big," he says, insisting that he does not "want to see a ruthless Tesco spoil Sheringham like they have spoilt everywhere else".

Tesco's potential arrival has split opinion and businesswoman Pam Blyth, who welcomes the retailer with open arms, admits things "have been getting quite nasty".

"This is not to do with Tesco, it is to do with the town," she says.

"This [Tesco] is not an ogre we are trying to hold back. You cannot stand still. If a business stands still, it will go down and a town is the same."

The fire station which would be demolished to make way for the Tesco store
Tesco will rebuild a fire station and community centre set to be demolished

Tesco has been looking to set up shop in Sheringham for more than a decade, but it has been embroiled in a highly contentious planning saga.

Having first pursued a site on the edge of town, it was encouraged to drop an application in 1998 as it became clear planning laws would shift in favour of High Street locations.

It submitted a proposal to build a store five minutes walk from the High Street in 2003, and bought the land for the site from Norfolk County Council and North Norfolk District Council.

The District Council approved its application in 2004, subject to certain conditions.

These included a limit of 1,500 square metres on its selling space, a footpath to link the store to the High Street, and the offer of three hours' free parking so shoppers would have time to visit other stores in the town.

It would not be sensible to invest if people said they did not want us in the town
Tesco spokesman

Agreement on these matters was reached in 2005 - but the application was subsequently turned down by the Council's development control committee.

Tesco appealed against the decision last year, on the grounds that no reasons had been given for the ruling.

Soon after, the relevant committee contacted Tesco to say it had reconsidered the case and was minded to approve the application if a similar set of conditions are met.

Councillors are now considering a fresh application and a decision is expected soon after next month's local elections, in which the saga is likely to be a major issue.

Battle for opinion

So polarised have views become that any claims about the balance of public opinion have to be treated with caution.

A telephone survey commissioned by Tesco last year found a majority of people backed the store, while a poll during a public exhibition of Tesco's plans reached the same conclusion.

"That is very encouraging," says a Tesco spokesman, adding that this supports its argument that most people see a real need for a larger supermarket.

Chris (left) and James Wright, directors of Blyth and Wright
A local ironmonger is worried money will be taken out of the town

"It would not be sensible to invest if people said they did not want us in the town."

But, in contrast, twice as many people have written to the council during the current consultation process urging it to reject the scheme than have written in support.

"This is an indication of the depth of feeling and a clear indication of the split in local opinion," says council official Andy Mitchell.

Most residents agree the status quo is not an option, given that the existing Budgens' and Co-op stores are limited in size and that people are being forced to shop at Morrisons in neighbouring Cromer as a result.

'Wrong location'

Criticism of Tesco has been shrill at times but many opponents say this has not been motivated by an ideological dislike of big business.

Instead, they say they are convinced that the proposed store is the wrong option for the town.

"We are not anti-Tesco," contends Janet Farrow, who runs the Claws and Paws pet shop and is vice-chairman of the town's Chamber of Trade.

Janet Farrow, owner of Claws and Paws
With the buying power they have, we are just not able to compete
Janet Farrow, Claws and Paws

"The store is far too big for what this town requires and it is definitely in the wrong place," she says, adding it is too far from the High Street and its position on the town's main arterial road will cause traffic chaos.

Safeguards to ensure people will still visit the town's butchers, bakers, fishmongers and bookstores are inadequate, she says, and small family concerns will shut.

"Tesco is not just grocery, it sells absolutely everything. That would have an impact on everybody. With the buying power they have, we are just not able to compete."

Like some other local firms, she favours a smaller site for which Budgens has got planning permission but which to date, it has chosen not to develop.

Budgens is not a local business but it seems to be preferred by those firms who fear Tesco's track record of rapid expansion and its determined move into non-food goods.

"The way people shop is changing but we are a seaside town. Tourists come here because we have a niche market," Ms Farrow says. "They like individual stores and everything that comes with it."

Set to flourish

But some believe the campaign against the proposed store has risked degenerating into a vendetta against Tesco and its global success.

"It is the name Tesco that some people seem to be fighting against," says Pam Blyth, who launched the Protesc website to counter opposition to the store.

"It doesn't matter what the town needs."

Roy and Brenda Daynes, who live opposite the proposed new store
I don't think Sheringham will fold because Tesco is here
Brenda Daynes, local resident

She says towns such as Hunstanton and Fakenham have flourished since Tesco opened there and she is confident quality independent food shops will survive.

"It is not in Tesco's interest for Sheringham to be anything other than successful. We don't have a supermarket of any size and we are the only town in the area without one."

Market forces might be stacked in Tesco's favour - but ultimately it will be local residents who decide on the success of their store.

One couple living opposite the proposed store say they will divide their budget between Tesco and local stores.

"I don't see Cromer folding because Morrisons is there and I don't think Sheringham will fold because Tesco is here," says Brenda Daynes, who moved to the town two years ago.

"Tesco is so powerful but we just look at it as a supermarket," adds husband Roy.

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