Tesco tunnel

Tesco tunnel
Gerrards Cross
22 May 2007

Having long overtaken its rival Sainsbury’s, Tesco is not only the UK’s largest retailer, but one of the most successful worldwide; in 2005, it was the first British supermarket to make a profit of more than £2bn. This figure has since risen to £2.8bn (April 2008).

Despite often having to provide funds for the construction of schools or affordable homes, the chain has developed a reputation for being bullish with planning procedures, repeatedly appealing to councils’ refusals and flouting size restrictions.

The planning and construction of a railway tunnel at Gerrards Cross with a new Tesco superstore on top — followed by the said structure’s collapse — has been widely reported and come, for many, to typify the supermarket giant’s reckless approach to building its shops.

Gerrards Cross has only been a parish since 1859, but it has grown into an affluent commuter village on the A40 north of London and is home to Cilla Black and the Osbournes. Tesco identified the village as a potential market in the mid-1990s, but there was a lack of space available for development. Working with the since defunct Railtrack, the supermarket sought planning permission in 1997 to build a store in the “air rights space” above the railway next to the station.

A survey reported that 93% of locals were against the store and both South Bucks district council and Buckinghamshire county council rejected the proposal. It was argued that the store would cause unwanted traffic, spoil the village atmosphere and that there was no need for a Tesco in Gerrards Cross, as there were three nearby anyway, in Amersham, High Wycombe and Slough. Tesco appealed, and with a little help from John Prescott, permission was granted in 1998, providing the store’s size was limited and construction lasted no longer than two years.

Work did not, however, start until 2003, after Tesco — now with Network Rail — had applied, albeit unsuccessfully, to increase the store’s size by 30%. The £20.3m contract to design and build the project was given to Jackson Civil Engineering. It involved building a 320-metre tunnel in the cutting above the track, on which the superstore and its car park could be balanced.

One of only eight similar tunnels in Britain, the design required more than 300 steel-reinforced concrete arches, covered with 200,000 tonnes of limestone, earth and bottom ash, taken from Edmonton and Rainham waste incinerators. Progress was slow as construction could only take place during the five hours at night when the railway line was not being used.

On 30 June 2005, some of the arches failed under the weight of earth and rubble and at about 7.30pm a 30-metre section of the tunnel collapsed. Fortunately no trains were in tunnel at the time, although one was stationary a little way up the track and its driver alerted the authorities. No one was injured but the Chiltern Railways service between Marylebone and Birmingham was severely disrupted until the site was cleared and the track reopened on 20 August.

According to reports in the Times and the Guardian, locals who oppose the development celebrated the collapse with champagne.1

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive is still in progress but has concluded that the structure failed owing to the way the infill material had been laid over it. In March 2006, the construction company Costain took over management of the project and the development was put on hold while they drew up a report.

Meanwhile, Tesco put up hoardings on the station platforms reading: “Thanks for your patience during construction.” The supermarket then had to pay compensation to Chiltern Railways to make up for the loss in revenue caused by the collapse.

A group Gerrards Cross residents clubbed together to lobby Tesco, Network Rail and the construction firms, promoting their cause through a website and by protests at the building site. They expressed concerns about the structure’s safety, the potential harm of exposed aggregate, the time needed for construction and whether such a large store is suited to a small village. Their campaign was backed by the parish council and Dominic Grieve, the local MP.

Other opponents of the scheme include Tescopoly, an alliance of pressure groups set up to “highlight and challenge the negative impacts of Tesco’s behaviour”.2

Tesco defended its position, dedicating a “Talking Tesco” webpage to “put the record straight” about its competitiveness and why it is building in Gerrards Cross.3 It writes of the lack of affordable grocery shopping in the village and points to a group of pensioners, who have been vocally in favour of the store, carrying placards outside the construction site. Tesco’s comments were dismissed by many of those opposing the development, one of whom told the Independent, they should rename the page “Talking Bollocks”.4

More than 10 years after the original planning application was submitted, the Gerrards Cross branch of Tesco is yet to open. In the mean time, however, Marks & Spencer has opened a Simply Food shop and Waitrose has plans to build a store in the prosperous village. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the presence of M&S and Waitrose has proved far less of a grievance for villagers. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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