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'This town has been sold to Tesco'

Are towns built by the UK's leading supermarket the future of urban development?

The Guardian, 5 May 2010

Imagine living in a Tesco house, sending your child to a Tesco school, swimming in a Tesco pool and, of course, shopping at the local Tesco superstore. According to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), the government's adviser on architecture and design, this collective monopoly is not an imaginary dystopia. "Tesco Towns" on this model are already being planned across the UK, from Inverness in Scotland to Seaton in Devon.

While the economic downturn has hit many parts of the development industry hard, Tesco recorded profits of nearly £3.4bn last year. Its plans for expansion are reflected by a growing tide of what are described as "supermarket-led mixed-use development proposals" – entire districts of homes, schools and public places built by the company.

Cabe is aware of plans for 3,656 new Tesco homes, an increase of 1,300% on the 283 homes built by the supermarket giant between 1996 and 2009. This huge rise – which represents only nine new schemes – is a fraction of the total planned, as Cabe does not see every scheme. Indeed, Tesco recently announced it aims to ramp up its superstore expansion by 40%, largely as a result of the mixed-use development.

Yet when house building is at its lowest level since 1923, more than 4.5 million people are on waiting lists for social housing and the number of families in temporary accommodation are up by a third in the last decade, shouldn't we welcome anyone building new homes, especially when a percentage will be earmarked as affordable housing?

Sir John Sorrell, the outgoing chair of Cabe, however, questions the quality of the proposed developments. "Retailers don't just want to build a new supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing and shopping streets," he warned in his valedictory speech at the end of last year. "Our concern is not only the quality of this kind of development – which is generally very poor – but the way in which architecture and places are created in the image of the retailer."

In Bromley-by-Bow, east London, a Tesco superstore, shops, primary school and hundreds of homes are planned. In Trafford, Manchester, a 168,000 sq ft Tesco will dominate a 50-acre site. Love Lane, Woolwich, and the Streatham Hub development, both in south London, and Queen's Square in West Bromwich are all home to similar proposed Tesco developments that are in partnership with the local authority. And in Seaton, a small seaside town in east Devon, a superstore, hundreds of homes and a hotel recently received planning permission.

Sandra Semple, the mayor of Seaton, is one of eight independent councillors elected on a platform opposing the proposals. Seaton, she says, is a traditional seaside town of 7,500 people on a World Heritage coast. "It's an old-fashioned town on a gorgeous bay, with nothing but individual shops, and no chainstores. Every other store is an individual trader," she says.

She points out that there are already 15 Tescos within 25 miles of Seaton, and says: "The town has always been against this, but the Tory-run district council completely refused to hear our arguments and says Tesco is the only company capable of regenerating our town. This will be an entire place. It's about 20 hectares – an enormous piece of land.

"This town has been sold to Tesco. We are not at the moment a 'Tesco Town', but this will make us one. We've lost our individuality, our identity – the very things that make this place special."

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