Every Little Helps… when it comes to community engagement

Published: January 23, 2015

“Wherever you stand on the expansion of the blue and white empire, it’s easy to see why they may be feeling damned if they do and damned if they don’t. ”

When he hasn’t been strutting his stuff as the latest incarnation of everyone’s favourite serial monogamist, Henry VIII, Damian Lewis has been on neighbourhood watch duty this week and speaking out against plans to build a new Tesco near his home in North London.

He’s the latest in a long line of celebrities to speak out against the planned development in Belsize Park. Other luminaries, including Emma Thompson and James Corden, have already voiced their displeasure at the thought of a Tesco Express driving customers away from a vibrant cluster of independent stores.

It’s not been the greatest of times for the retail giant, who in almost Cromwellian style had steadily grown to become one of the most powerful names in the country, only to now find itself out of favour in the eyes of many. Adding to Tesco’s pain now though is that while it has always attracted some criticism from well-to-do residents in leafy suburbs, residents in some of Britain’s more deprived communities are now also raging at their behaviour.

This anger stems from the firm’s decision to pull out of a number of planned new store openings. As part of their financial rescue plan, Tesco is cancelling the opening of 49 proposed stores, and closing 43 more existing ones.

Tesco’s new Chief Executive David Lewis has insisted that it is critical to reviving the group’s fortunes, but it’s left many fuming. A case in point is Wolverhampton. In the words of one local, “I thought Tesco would come and there would be a lot more people… It’s bad for the city. The supermarket was necessary.” Local MP Pat McFadden called the decision a “betrayal”.

Wherever you stand on the expansion of the blue and white empire, it’s easy to see why they may be feeling damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

In buying land with a view to developing on it, Tesco has morphed from simple retailer to a major player at the heart of efforts to regenerate the UK’s communities. This is a company that, despite recent troubles, still wields major financial might. With that power comes responsibility.

It’s notable that more well-off communities, hit less hard by the economic downturn and more likely to have a well-developed group of local enterprises, see no economic or social benefit to Tesco moving in.

On the other hand, areas where regeneration is needed have evidently been hoping a new superstore would be the boost they desperately needed, an anchor to which a new, active local economy could be moored.

This raises questions for Tesco, but also for the way we do regeneration in the UK. If the public sector is to rely on big corporates to act as the economic anchor then it has to accept the vagaries of the market.

Perhaps the biggest issue arising from this new swell of community anger though is the feeling of broken promises. It’s a timely reminder that with any community engagement programme – or indeed communications programme – managing expectations is critical.

Tom Yazdi
Senior Consultant

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