The Kingsgate Scandal

The Story of Berkhamsted's New Waitrose Store

Berkhamsted, like many historic market towns, has suffered severely in recent years from the proliferation of out-of-town superstores. Many local shoppers prefer to drive to these instead of walking to shops within the town, generating unnecessary car journeys and depriving local retailers of trade.

In 1994, Dacorum Borough Council paid a large sum of taxpayers' money to a supposedly independent firm of consultants, who are as ignorant of Berkhamsted as the Borough Council is, to look at the problems facing Berkhamsted town centre. The consultants, Donaldsons', recommended the construction of a large foodstore on land owned by Dacorum Borough Council just outside the town centre. The working name for this site, situated off Lower Kings Road, was Kingsgate - appropriate for a scandal of regal proportions!

Donaldsons' tried to tell us that this new store would bring in more shoppers who would also visit town centre shops and thus attract more retailers to the town. The proposal caused outrage amongst residents, who believed that the new store would only generate traffic and put more local retailers out of business. They demanded that the council carry out a survey of public opinion. Dacorum claimed that this would be too expensive. A local man offered to pay the cost, but Dacorum still refused.

A group of local people then organised their own survey of every fifteenth name on the electoral roll. It was endorsed as statistically valid by a former managing director of Gallup. It found that only a quarter of residents were in favour of the new store. Three quarters of local retailers also opposed the plan. They clearly did not believe that the new store would bring more trade for them.

Dacorum then held a so-called "Public consultation" evening at Berkhamsted Civic Centre - in other words a shabby and unsuccessful attempt to sell the plan to the public. Representatives of Dacorum and Waitrose acted like employees of the same organisation. The Waitrose representatives could be distinguished only by their brown jackets. Senior Waitrose management were conspicuous by their absence. They had pushed juinor staff into the front line to bear the brunt of public anger. It later emerged that Dacorum and Waitrose had exchanged contracts for the sale of the site earlier the same day, only seven days after the plans were released to the public. The statutory minimum consultation period for planning applications is 21 days.

Planning permission for the new store was granted early in 1995 by Dacorum with all-party support, though against the advice of its own conservation officer and of English Heritage. In the 1995 local elections, Independent candidates opposed to the scheme contested the thirteen seats on Berkhamsted Town Council and won eleven of them, ousting all the Conservatives and some of the Liberal Democrats who had voted in favour of Waitrose.

Unfortunately a change of control at Dacorum from Conservative to Labour failed to change the council's attitude. One lot of stuffed shirts replaced another; only the colour of their rosettes changed. So construction began.

The builders were faced with a problem. The intended goods entrance to the site, from Lower Kings Road, was too narrow to accommodate the five-axle articulated lorries which were to bring stock to the store. It could not be widened because of an adjacent Catalpa tree, otherwise known as an Indian Bean, which was protected by a Tree Preservation Order. A dangerous access which could not be widened without damaging a preserved tree would normally be grounds for refusal of planning permission, but a different solution was adopted in this case.

The tree was conveniently knocked down by a contractor working on the site, and the entrance was widened. There were subsequent claims that the tree was rotten, but a local gardener who examined the remains found that any rot was minimal. It could be suggested that both the John Lewis Partnership and Dacorum Borough Council are considerably more rotten than was the Catalpa tree.

The penalty for destroying a preserved tree is a fine of up to 2000 and an order to plant a replacement on the same site. As far as I am aware, the contractor escaped punishment. A new Catalpa tree was planted, but on a site further from the access. The site of its predecessor is now occupied by a large Waitrose sign which gives the impression that the entire car park is for Waitrose customers only. In fact, most of it is owned by Dacorum Borough Council and is maintained at taxpayers' expense.

The first replacement Catalpa died from lack of care. A second survived only because local volunteers watered it throughout a dry Summer.

In case the reader had not guessed, the authority responsible for enforcing planning legislation in Berkhamsted, including the protection of preserved trees, is Dacorum Borough Council.

In order to make room for the new store, the John Lewis Partnership downgraded a Byway Open to All Traffic to a footpath without permission, and illegally re-routed the adjacent River Bulbourne. The former should have attracted enforcement action from Hertfordshire County Council, but it lost the plans of the local byways and the letters of objection from residents.

The Environment Agency should have disallowed the diversion of the Bulbourne, but remained silent. A national newspaper later printed an article about the local head of the Environment Agency, Chris Hampson. His photograph suggests he is of a similar age to Sir Stuart Hampson, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, and bears a physical resemblance. Could they be brothers, perhaps?

Sir Stuart Hampson has admitted on television that he is a Mason. (Modern Times, BBC2).

The John Lewis Partnership also paid for a mini-roundabout to be installed where the main access road for car-borne shoppers, St. John's Well Lane, joins the High Street. The official explanation was that this was done to enable pedestrians to cross St. John's Well Lane more safely. In fact the extra traffic which it enables to use the road makes it more difficult and dangerous for pedestrians to cross. The real reason for the roundabout is that it enables Waitrose to get more car-borne customers into its store in a shorter period of time.

The mini-roundabout also took away the informal parking space outside a local newsagent's shop. He suffered a drop in trade and finally closed in 2004. Waitrose sells newspapers.

The new Waitrose opened its doors late in 1996. The fears of the objectors have since been fully realised. Waitrose is doing very nicely, but at the time of writing, May 2013, seventy local retailers have gone out of business since it opened, and only fourteen new retailers have come into the town. Traffic has increased. A subsequent survey, again by Donaldsons', showed that fewer people now walk in the High Street. In 1994, 50% of shoppers came to the town centre by car; in 1998 it was over 70%.

The ground floor of Waitrose's former, smaller, premises in the town centre stood empty for almost eight years - another eyesore in the High Street. Waitrose would not allow any other food retailer to occupy it. The level of rent demanded by Waitrose - 3000 per week plus another 3000 in business rates - kept the entire shop empty until October 2004, when Ottakar's Bookstore took half of it. Laura Ashley now occupies the rest.

The partiality of our local authorities towards Waitrose continues. St. John's Well Lane was resurfaced by Dacorum Borough Council at taxpayers' expense, while residential roads which are in a worse condition and have been waiting many years for repairs have still not been attended to. Road resurfacing is normally funded by Hertfordshire County Council; Dacorum Borough Council usually refuses to spend additional money from its own coffers, but was quite happy to stump up in this case.

When Closed-Circuit Television Cameras were erected in Berkhamsted, Dacorum Borough Council was careful to ensure that all the access routes and car parking surrounding Waitrose were covered, again at taxpayers' expense, while other locations preferred by local people were not. Repeated requests to the Borough Council for an explanation of the camera locations chosen were ignored.

In June 2005, Dacorum Borough Council granted planning permission for Waitrose to increase the size of the store by a fifth, despite local objections. Chairman of the Development Control Committee, Conservative Councillor Stan Mills, memorably branded "Dark, Satanic Mills" by former Liberal Democrat Borough Councillor John Brooks, said "I don't see how an expansion in retail space will increase the amount of traffic". His party colleague Derek Townsend added "You will get a better choice of goods".

Ten years of evidence appears to have taught Dacorum Borough Council nothing. We residents of Berkhamsted still have to suffer arrogant councillors who do not represent Berkhamsted wards telling us that bigger supermarkets are good for us. Will they ever learn?

During the sham "Public consultation", Waitrose placed great emphasis on its claim to be a "caring" company. So far it has shown no sign of caring about anything except money.

The moral of the story: don't shop at Waitrose, or any other branch of the John Lewis Partnership. It is not the ethical organisation that it claims to be.

Footnote: An early version of this article first appeared on a web site which had previously been critical of the Labour Party. The government had tried and failed to have the site removed from the Internet. After this article appeared, Waitrose tried to have the site taken down, and succeeded. A salutary demonstration of who really has the political clout in England.

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Copyright © 2013 - Ian Johnston
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