Tesco’s plans to close 43 ‘Express’, ‘Home Plus’, ‘Metro’ and ‘Superstores’ by mid-April has been well publicised, as has their proposal to scrap another 49 NEW stores planned for the UK. The Company has also scrapped plans for 13 new stores in Hungary, but it’s not clear whether the sites will be ‘land banked’ as it’s called or sold-off, and if so on what terms.

He seemed oblivious to the relief of independent retailers in Bilston Market Hall and on the High Street and those locals who’ve stared at this derelict site for the last 14 years

The announcements provoked outcry amongst MP’s protesting at the effect on their constituencies. One of the most strident was Pat McFadden MP (Labour, Wolverhampton South East) indignant at Tesco’s decision to scrap development of the former Royal Hospital site in Wolverhampton. He seemed oblivious to the relief of independent retailers in Bilston Market Hall and on the High Street and those locals who’ve stared at this derelict site for the last 14 years. He proclaimed the news from Tesco was a ‘betrayal’ and proved the Company ‘could not be trusted’. No-one can accuse Pat of jumping to conclusions – he’d taken 14 years to work that out. Nor did the news have the earthshaking effect he’d hoped for amongst dispirited locals. No member of the Hungarian National Assembly was available for comment.

Provided your pockets are deep enough there is nothing to prevent you from buying premises ‘just in case’ and very little to prevent you from leaving it derelict thereafter

But Pat’s comments DID highlight a major flaw in the UK town planning system – how all supermarkets (not just Tesco) ‘land bank’ future development sites, then leave them derelict. This practice has been criticised by the Competition Commission as an underhand means of preventing competitors from expanding into their business – which is of course exactly the intention. Provided your pockets are deep enough there is nothing to prevent you from buying premises ‘just in case’ and very little to prevent you from leaving it derelict thereafter. Effective legislation to prevent land banking does not exist so supermarkets and housebuilders continue to buy-up sites as soon as a new Local Plan is released which zones areas for future development. As the Commission has pointed out, if a developer can snap them up quickly and on the cheap – often by an initial payment plus top-up bonus once it is built-out – then that effectively blocks the competition. Between purchase and build-out the planning authority is largely powerless to prevent the site being left derelict and has to tell anyone applying for a similar use: ‘Sorry – there’s another site already allocated for that use’. That’s why draft Local Plans generate so much interest from developers.

There has been talk about forcing developers to relinquish land-banked sites under threat of Compulsory Purchase Order, or forcing them to put the land to ‘beneficial use’ – but who will pay for it?

This problem has not been helped by the Dept. for Communities and Local Government (DCLG’s) shiny new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) introduced in 2012. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP (Conservative, Brentwood & Ongar) has been widely-criticised for replacing 1500 pages of national planning policy built-up over 40 years with 50 pages devised in 40 months. The new slimline NPPF is accused of being far too pro-development and lacking a means to counter land-banking – frustrating local planning authority efforts to phase development to a rational programme. There has been talk about forcing developers to relinquish land-banked sites under threat of Compulsory Purchase Order, or forcing them to put the land to ‘beneficial use’ – but who will pay for it? Not local government for sure. To compound the problem local planning authorities are under pressure to meet DCLG targets for more homes for our expanding population. Landbanking means green fields are often built-out It will be interesting to see whether Tesco hold onto or sell-off their cancelled development sites. Councillor Roger Lawrence, leader of Wolverhampton City Council, said: ‘The Council has done everything it its power to support Tesco to proceed with their plans, and I and senior council officers will now be seeking urgent discussion with Tesco about how to take forward the development of this key gateway site.’ Well, unless Wolverhampton CC make some outrageously expensive taxpayer-funded concession there’s not a lot they can do to force Tesco into action. And if Tesco do sell-off then you can bet they’ll slap a restrictive covenant on the title deeds to frustrate any competitor from acquiring the site in the future.

A 23% drop in Waitrose operating profits has meant bonuses have been cut for the second consecutive year

Another group which is far from happy are the 94,000 staff who own John Lewis and Waitrose. Traditionally some 45 – 50% of trading profits have been paid-out as bonuses to the ‘partners’ each year but a 23% drop in Waitrose operating profits has meant bonuses have been cut for the second consecutive year, from 15% to 11% of annual salary. This was despite the upmarket grocer increasing like-for-like sales by 1.4% and gaining market share against its rivals. The boss of Waitrose, Mark Price, said the Company is battling against shoppers ‘moving away from a single, weekly out-of-town shop to multiple smaller purchases from convenience stores and online’.

Tesco is trying to rebuild its fraught relationship with suppliers.

Finally, after it’s £260 million false-accounting scandal (booking ‘supplier discounts’ before receipt) Tesco is trying to rebuild its fraught relationship with suppliers. The Company is waving the magic wand of a friendly online Tesco Supplier Network to help 5,000 suppliers communicate with their Buyers and each other – complaints included. Given their rough treatment of suppliers in the past the rumour has it few are likely to let bygones be bygones. The magic wand is seen as a big stick in disguise.

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