Thursday, March 6, 2008

normal service will not shortly be resumed

There was a Cambridge City Council planning meeting tonight to determine whether a supermarket would become a tenant of a void shop-site in a busy street. In normal circumstances it would be a matter of whether porceedure was followed in the light of central government guidance and the local policies.

The East Area Committee meeting in St Philip's Church, Mill Road, was not about planning permission as such, which had already been given, but concerned three proposed changes - an extension to the building, a recessed autobank and illuminated signage. The recommendations from council officers and consultants in every case was that the Council should approve the proposed changes, usually with conditions. Arguments were backed up with reference to Central Government advice, history and the context of the Mill Road area in a 153-page agenda. Yet normal circumstances did not prevail.

As I chewed over earlier, Tesco's is applying to open an Express store in Mill Road. This is being hotly contested by a campaign which has whipped up support from traders in Mill Road, those who buy from them and others who live in the Mill Road area. The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Addenbrookes Hospital's Department of Clinical Biology, the Thomas Coram Research Unit in the University of London's Institute of Education and Fox Studios Australia were also mentioned in the Council agenda as having registered "general anti-Tesco objections".

One thing the anti-protesters and I agree on is that Mill Road is a cosmopolitan area. It's a pity, then, that the protest newsletter mentions only that the street has 13 grocery stores, and doesn't detail, for example, that one specialises in Chinese food (not to be mistaken with the Chinese/Malaysian specialist store), another in Korean, a polyglot one covers Asian, Arabic, Persian and Afro-Carribean provender and yet another specialises in "exotic vegetables".

There are many shops in Mill Road. Today I took a walk from the bottom end, nearest town, to St Philip's church over the railway bridge, passing 115 ground-floor businesses (I counted them), mainly shops. Of all the shops which we were warned face extinction were Tesco's to move in, only a greengrocer's, a newsagent's and one of the specialist grocery shops displayed anti-Tesco's fliers in such a way that they were visible to somebody on the street. The other fliers were displayed by a wig shop, an antiques emporium, an "alternative" bookshop, a nail-bar and a low-cost shop (the one where you can buy paraphernalia for smoking cannabis among the address-books and happy-birthday posters).

These were all on the same side of the railway bridge as the proposed Tesco's. The only one on the other side, where most of the food stores are concentrated, was almost a mile away near the city end of Mill Road, a health-food store that advertised itself as "100% vegetarian". With several outlets selling Halal meat in the vicinity, Tesco's seems a strange choice of windmill for an outfit that is so stridently 100% vegetarian to tilt at.

So what happened? The lack of proposed parking spaces seemed an advantage, strangely, because Government guidance states that

"Car parking also takes up a large amount of space in development, is costly to business and reduces densities. Reducing the amount of parking in new development
(and in the expansion and change of use in existing development) is essential, as part of a package of planning and transport measures, to promote sustainable travel choices."

PPG13 Transport (2001)

The warning that people might park illegally held no water with the advisors, who wrote that the Council could not grant or withhold permissions on the basis of whether people might break the law. The spokesman for the Cambridge Cycling Campaign warned of dangers for cyclists due to increased traffic. He made the remark that he would oppose these proposals "even if the applicant was the most ethical fairtrade shop of the same size." It was a perfectly fair remark for him to make, given his interest, but it was badly received: there was an angry hum and people looked at each other dismissively.

Perhaps we were getting close to the hub of things: the applicant wasn't "the most ethical fairtrade shop", it was Tesco's. It's not the sort of chain that is well-liked within the trendy white activist clique that was predominantly represented in the audience on behalf of this cosmopolitan community. Sonia Cooter, speaking for the No Mill Road Tesco's campaign, referred to the company's "global reach", perhaps not noticing that globalisation wasn't on the agenda of the Cambridge City Council East Area Committee that night. She tried to seem open-handed by saying the campaign would have taken place had any of the "big four" (Tesco's, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrison) applied for the void property. Council officers anticipated this by quoting Circular 11/95, "The Use of Conditions in Planning Permissions":

92. Since planning controls are concerned with the use of land rather than the identity of the user, the question of who is to occupy premises for which permission is to be granted will normally be irrelevant. Conditions restricting occupancy to a particular occupier or class of occupier should only be used when special planning grounds can be demonstrated, and where the alternative would normally be refusal of permission.

Was it perhaps a failure of nerve in the light of so many voters displaying placards, including one which said "We will remember your decision on polling day?" Or an entry on the No Mill Road Tesco Site reminding councillors that "the crucial point is to avoid the danger of an appearance of bias"? I don't know. What seemed strange to me, however, was that two councillors who were members of the Cooperative Party, which has strong links with the Co-op, felt that their membership was not a conflict of interest. Strange, this, as the Mill Road Co-op has been a major displayer and supplier of anti-Tesco's material. An enthusiastic Cambridge Co-operative Party member maintains a blog and has participated in the Co-op/Tesco's debate; although he is not a Co-op employee, he's certainly fervent.

When I got home to the draughty old fen, the Council's decision was the first item on the BBC1 10.30 news. One scene was of a group of protesters showing the strength of their feeling outside St Philip's before the meeting.

This didn't just happen. When I was about to go into the church, a rather attractive woman from the BBC stopped me, seeming to think I was one of the protesters. When I said I wasn't she lost interest, story of my life. Then she found a genuine protester, and instructed him not to let the other protesters enter the church, so that her team could film a show of anger outside for the night's news.

So what was tonight about? It certainly wasn't about the various ethnic minorities who live, move and have their being on Mill Road, as they just got on with things, going into their respective stores to buy what they needed to make a cold English night seem a little more like home. Nor was it about solicitude for the road-users of the area; as it is, if you want to drive or cycle down Mill Road, you have to navigate half-blind around a series of vans and lorries supplying the shop (including the behemoth that was at the side of the Co-op before the meeting tonight).

Perhaps it was, at least, partly, about power: about white liberals being seen to protect the tenure of shops catering for Chinese, Malaysian, Korean, Arabic, Persian and Afro-Caribbean food-stores, safe in the knowledge that they can't lose because those shops need no protecting in the first place. And about identity: not ring-fenced ethnic identity, but that of working-class Brits (regardless of the amount of melanin present in their skin) who just want to pop into a store that will sell bacon, eggs, black pudding, Lincolnshire sausages, crisps, a bag of tatties and the Express for a reasonable price, all in the same place.

Or perhaps it was about Britishness or, more precisely, the absence of Britishness that trendy white liberal Brits think is the crucial requirement for multiculturalism, whatever they think that is. Me, I'm not on a crusade - I just want black pudding, tatties and the paper, in a road where normal circumstances prevail.

Related posts:

Do the shopping, stuff the skunk
Tesco - a different view always helps

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