The image of the business methods of major coffee chains is now seriously in question and there could be an adverse knock-on effect which might harm the public image of the coffee trade as a whole. The problem arises from the recent spate of stories, more than usual, about disputes between the major chains and local communities who do not wish to see big brands moving in to their high streets.
The matter of the chains allegedly steamrollering their way through local councils has turned up three very interesting decisions within the space of a week. First came the decision to allow Costa to open in Totnes after a long and hotly-contested public debate, a decision described by the planning profession’s own trade paper as the end of the prime minister’s ambitions for ‘localism’. Second, Costa succeeded in overturning council enforcement notices to close on some of its franchised shops in Bristol, and the third decision was to allow Costa to open in Southwold in spite of a long and vociferous campaign by the local residents
The common issue in all these cases is the friction which has arisen between the coffee sector and the local communities and councils, which has not always shown the industry in a good light. Even though the industry has ‘won’ all three matters, we wait to see whether the major chains make any changes in the way they present themselves to both the public and the business world, following their now-general casting in the role of demons.
A major reason for criticism of the chains is that they are now regularly steamrollering their way into local communities, seeking not just to open branches where the residents may now want them, but doing so in an unduly aggressive manner.
The word ‘bullying’ has now appeared several times in the local press to describe the attitude of the big chains. The mayor of Southwold, referring to Costa, said: “I can say with authority that we are not going to be bullied by these people”, a councillor in Wiltshire accused Caffe Nero of ‘bullying’ its way into a town there, and Costa was reported in the Hampshire press to have expressed regret after a franchisee’s attitude to a rival in Southampton, who told the paper he felt ‘bullied’.
The press in East Anglia has referred to the anger of “some people who claim Costa is employing ‘strong-arm tactics’.” In the same area, the secretary of the Southwold and Reydon Society, told a local paper: “I’m not surprised by the planning officers’ recommendation because these people are faced with near-intimidation at times”.
On several occasions in the regional press, it has been reported that when the major chains come to appeal in these matters (and they are perfectly well prepared for appeal, even when the first application is made) that their presentation actually includes details of other towns across the UK where they have successfully opened after winning appeals over residents’ objections. This is at best a quite breathtaking declaration that a company does not care about local feelings – at worst, it is an arrogant and discourteous indication to a local council of: ‘we don’t care what you think – we’re big enough to beat you, and we’re cleverer than you’.
The matter of the council vote has brought back into the spotlight the question of local councils and planning matters. The allegation has been made on several occasions that local councillors, however diligent they may be in public service matters, are not planning experts, nor are they qualified or skilled enough to argue against a planning agent employed by a big company. When a large company decides to make a move into a town, it has the backing of very experienced planning agents – they have been through this fight countless times before. They do, it has often been pointed out, know the planning regulations better than local planning officers do. They quite certainly know the arguments far better than the average town councillor.
This probably explains the following account of the final Southwold meeting, which we received from a local café operator who attended, and which illustrates just how much a local councillor can be harassed by a powerful opponent:
“At the beginning of the meeting, it was announced that there were 614 letters of objection and seven letters of support for the plans. It was standing room only, and the meeting ran pretty much as expected until it got to the vote and then it degenerated into farce-like proportions.
“It was clear to the public gallery that some committee members did not know what the initial proposal was that they were voting on.
“At the first attempt at a vote against the application, one member voted for that proposal – that is, against the application. The Chair declared that he wanted the vote to be retaken on the same proposal and the same member abstained this time – this vote was six against six. The Chair consulted with the chief planning officer and then the chair requested another proposal.
“The member who had already voted against the application and had then abstained, this time voted for it, with the result 7-6 for the application. At this point the vociferous and highly-charged ‘anti’ campaigners kicked off – and that particular committee member was reduced to tears, and ran out of the chamber.”
The disorder was such that the public gallery was cleared, and even the local mayor expressed astonishment that the application had been passed, even though the same council had previously refused the same application on the grounds that it could harm his town’s ‘unique character’.
The conclusion many have reached is that the chains are now marshalling armies of high-powered consultants to overcome perfectly honourable councilors.
In Bristol, where there has now been a decision in favour of Costa over some franchised shops which the council had served with enforcement notices, it has now effectively been confirmed that the chain’s consultants are cleverer than the local authorities. The local franchisee has pointed out that the enforcement notice was not founded on valid planning reasons, and as he now receives his costs from the council, has said that the council’s work was a waste of public time and money.
The local council in response reportedly criticised ‘businesses who cynically choose to operate without the correct planning permission and in breach of a certificate of lawfulness…. it seems planning regulations that are put in place to protect the interests of local residents can be disregarded for months, or even years, pending a decision from a government inspector.’
In the case of coffee houses, this strategy has never been in question. Opening up first and arguing later is a known and acknowledged tactic.
The wider implications of all this have been raised by Planning magazine, looking at the case from the side of planning authorities, which attempted to explain how the decision had been reached, while still managing a swipe at the government’s ambitions for ‘localism’, in which residents are supposed to have a say on how their town is run.
In Totnes, a case which has been very widely publicised, Costa has won permission to trade in a town where 3,000 people out of a population of 9,000 signed a petition against them. This is a town which is famous for its independent stance in all areas of life, not just coffee shops – it is one of the pioneers of the Transition Town movement.
The magazine remarks that the local case officer who had to make the Totnes decision was ‘unfortunate’ in being called upon to handle a case in which objections related more to the identity of the applicant than the proposed usage of the premises. The officer in question had reported: “Many of the objections relate to the fact that Costa is the applicant…but such an objection is not a material planning consideration. It is the use of a site which is the consideration. The premises have been vacant since February 2010, and make no contribution to the viability of the shopping area. It is beneficial to have an empty unit put to use rather than remain empty… for these reasons the application is recommended for approval.”
The comment from Planning goes on to say: “the hype surrounding the Localism Act raised the unrealistic expectation that the new planning framework would actually allow the council to block the proposal according to the wishes of local people. This was never going to be the case.”
So, the situation currently exists in which coffee chains are continuing to open in provincial communities, against the wishes of the local population, and would appear to do so with impunity. The words of councils appear to have little or no effect.
The result of this can only be harm to the image of the big chains, but worse, there is potential harm to the image of the coffee community as a whole – we are now seen as one big steamrollering commodity.
One senior member of the trade, with much experience on the side of the big chains, commented to us:
“I am surprised by the robust attitude taken by Costa. In many of the planning fights I have been in, we have managed to get the local people on our side – in one town, they got up a petition to get the council off our backs!
“It is very tricky, because there is a case to be put for a big brand being good for the high street. But is also easy to jump to the conclusion that ‘big is bad’, when the industry always seems to be saying ‘our brand is bigger than your council’.”
Many more have expressed bafflement over the attitude of the coffee chains. The local MP for Totnes has ‘appealed’ for Costa not to impose themselves on a town where they are not wanted; the ‘queen of shops’, Mary Portas, has said ‘please listen to the people of Totnes – they don’t want you’, and even the UK’s first world barista champion, the coffee personality James Hoffmann of Square Mile Roasters, has said: “I really don’t understand the bulldozer mentality of the chains who still try an open in places where people clearly don’t want them.”
In Southwold, even the TV personality Michael Palin has stepped in to protest against the arrival of Costa.
The most chilling comment is from the mayor of Totnes, who has said: “Costa seems determined to have a coffee shop in every small town and village in the country. Other small communities should be aware – you’re next.”
There are lighter moments to the story - in part of the Transition Town Totnes movement is the establishment of a local currency, the Totnes Pound. This has been used in several modern communities – the ‘banknote’ is sold to local customers through certain approved outlets, and is redeemable only through independent traders who have taken part in the scheme. It is also printed by a local printer.
It costs a minimal percentage commission to pay for the scheme, and is ‘backed’ by funds held in a local bank, but the essential point is that it keeps money circulating within the local community.
When asked whether Costa would be permitted to trade in the Totnes Pound, the reaction was that in all probability, the chain would not, and would thereby miss out on a very active part of local commerce.
‘Anyway’, commented one of the Totnes campaigners, ‘any national business makes decisions centrally – it is unlikely that a group’s finance directors would be able to cope with such a localised concept.’.