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Asda in Cinderford? Not in my name!

NOASDAIn all my days of activism, I never thought I’d see a pro-supermarket campaign on my doorstep. To twist the knife further, it’s Asda they’re fighting for, though it seems to be more of an anti-Co-Op protest than anything else – and, at times, swamped with dirty tricks.

Cinderford is a small market town located in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. The Forest has a long tradition of strong community and is legendary for taking no prisoners when it comes to the crown, state and government interfering in affairs here. They even told the Chartists to bugger off as they were doing fine, thank you very much!

So what on earth would trigger a protest FOR an Asda in a town with a population of around 10,000, two supermarkets already (Co-Op and Lidl) and some quality local independent traders? Cheap milk, nappies and ‘choice’, it seems. Not sure how they’ll feel when the only choice will be whether to drive, get the bus or walk to the edge of town development proposal. Personally, I’ll be peed off!

I remember when the whole Cinderford regeneration effort started. A big wadge of dosh was laid on the table, and very quickly appeared to get consumed for the most part on consultation by out of town suits. So we have a few pretty bike racks with leaves on and some altered paving. Seems to me that there’s been a severe imagination bypass!

The First Stop Local shop scheme had a lot of promise – shop front grants for tired looking buildings, a Rewards Card for customers with different incentives and discounts offered by many of the Forest’s independent businesses. The Trader’s Association was reborn, The Forester newspaper was on side, town centre Fun Days were organised and some empty units were even filled. Business rates were lowered for non-chain shops and it really felt like a turning point for this tired little town.

Still, underneath all of this, planning permission continued to be given for yet more takeaways and shop units to be turned into flats. No demands were made by the council on those that monopolise the ownership of town centre units for cheaper shop rents or even subsidies offered to bring in those who would ‘fill the gaps’, and most people continued to shop out of town.

Tesco made a bid for the Cinderford Rugby ground, situated next door to the Co-Op. I remember how many folks were opposed to that, including  some councillors, though not all officially. They didn’t get permission in the end due to access issues, though if you were to take notice of what the pro-Asda folks have to say about that, the Co-Op stopped them coming. They did seemingly have the final say as Tesco wanted to cut into their land, but I think you’d have to call that fair game. If next door had wanted to cut through my shop to lead the way into them selling similar stuff , and forfeiting quality and ethics for price, I’d feel the same!

The bulk of the regeneration incentive seems to lie with bringing big business in to pay for it, but at the cost of what?

Planning permission has been granted for this huge edge of town site over a Sainsbury’s proposal in another, and seemingly more suitable, part of town. One can’t help but wonder if that had anything to do with the Asda proposition being closer to the whole Northern Quarter development. A separate issue on the surface, but plans to fell a chunk of Forest and run a road through an area of extreme importance in terms of endangered wildlife to effectively build a brand new Cinderford centre outside of town are afoot. Play has currently been stopped by the Police Wildlife Unit thanks to the pressure from various wildlife groups, much to the disgruntlement of Cllr. Graham Morgan, who is now chairman of the Regeneration Board. Interestingly, that story is no longer online, but you can keep informed and find full details on the Friends of Northern United Facebook page.

The Co-Op put in a judicial review application to try and stop the development, but the application was refused on grounds of time, ie. they took too long to put it in. The Co-Op had a couple of  days to appeal and have done so, requesting an oral hearing. Now some campaigners are threatening to boycott the Co-Op, with little regard for the fact that it’s a major employer in these parts. The Forester have just published a piece on it.

There is now a No to Asda campaign, which I fully support, though it’s obviously a shame that we weren’t all on the ball with it earlier! Too much of that protesting against the government cuts stuff going on everywhere for us to focus on immediate issues on our doorsteps, methinks. Sadly, within hours of the page appearing on Facebook, it was submitted to a barrage of abuse, and even some threats, from pro-Asda supporters. Not very community spirited, is it?!  Seems to me that the No page is about raising awareness and offering a different perspective. They have also set up an online petition against Asda and will be out on the streets with it soon.

The ‘We Want Asda’ campaign appears to be mostly run on a Facebook group with the odd meeting in a local pub. It boasts just over 1500 members which covers about 10% of the population of Cinderford and surrounding villages. We all know that you can’t gauge anything by FB numbers though, right? Their first march through town was reasonably successful, though not really representative of the ‘majority’ as it claims, with a turnout of around 200. They held one in Coleford, a neighbouring town, with around 9 people, then hit Cinderford’s streets again a couple of weeks ago and their numbers had dwindled to around 20, including several children. They claim 50 or 60 turned out, but it didn’t look like that from where I was.

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I interviewed Adrian Lane via Facebook. He’s a Cheltenham man living in Coleford, who was, up until the last march, the leader of the pro-Asda campaign. He apparently stepped down to ‘focus on his family’, though I’m guessing that it had more to do with the fact that he was exposed on HTV News for being a bit of a dirty trickster. He had been posting rather stalky photos taken around the town and screenshots from personal Facebook accounts of Co-Op employees, stating that he was going to report them among other things. The only times I’ve heard of campaigners disappearing mid-campaign are either through exhaustion, or they’ve been on a payroll and been taken off. Not suggesting anything here, mind. Anyway, here’s what he had to say, or not in some cases..

Me: ‘I’m curious as to why a Coleford resident, one who I believe fought the Co-Op there with the Tesco proposal, would be so interested in Asda in Cinderford?’

Adrian Lane: ‘It is nothing to do with me being a resident of Coleford, it is about what I and others believ will be good for the Forest of Dean as a whole. I was not part of the campaign to do with Tesco in Cinderford’

Me: ‘So this wasn’t you? (I was referring to Coleford, not Cinderford.)’ – link to Adrian’s piece in the Mid Devon Advertiser

Adrian Lane: (no reply)

Me: ‘Are you planning to shop there? And encourage others to do so?’

Adrian Lane: ‘I would shop there if Asda was built in Cinderford, yes, it if for people to decide themselves were they shop, we just want choice, the Midcounties Co Operative have the monopoly in the Forest of Dean’

Me: ‘I can’t see how the Co-Op have a monopoly? There is a Lidl in Cinderford and a Tesco in Lydney? Their store in Coleford is also very small? Would it not be better for the Forest if we boosted independent trading over brand names?’

Adrian Lane: (no reply)

Me: ‘Have you considered the small businesses in both towns at all?’

Adrian Lane: ‘Yes we have considered the small business in the towns, some are for it and some are against it, I spent a morning going around Cinderford talking to the traders, a majority feel that the town is finished anyway, other felt that Asda would hurt there trade, some believe it will breath new life into the town.’

Me: ‘There is a nationwide proven track record of small towns declining both in independent shops and in general economy when large multi-national corporations take a stranglehold.’

Adrian Lane: (no response)

Me: ‘Do you know, or care, about the unethical background and practices of Asda Walmart?’

Adrian Lane: (no reply)

Me: ‘Were you aware of the Boycott Walmart campaign in America? That their employment, buying and production ethics are beyond abominable? If so, does this concern you?’

Adrian Lane: (still no reply)

Me: ‘Do you consider offering sweeteners such as ‘free balloons and sweets for kids’ or paying for adverts in the local press normal protest tactics?’

Adrian Lane: ‘I do not see a problem with putting an advert in the local whats section, other events are listed on there. Last time a lot of people brought children along, as a sign of our appreciation we offered the sweets and balloons for the children, it is not a tactic to get more kids there’

Me: ‘Do you have a personal gripe with the Co-Op?’

Adrian Lane: ‘I do not have a personal gripe with the Midcounties Co Operative, i am unhappy that they want to stop big name supermarkets coming to the town of Cinderford & the Forest of Dean. We are an unemployment blackspot, this development would create 200 plus jobs, with people earning £1.5M in salary, of which a lot would go back into the local economy.’

Me:  ‘Asda is renowned for it’s poor working conditions and ethics. It will also bring some staff from other areas with it, and the jobs it will create will be destroyed elsewhere. They also use the Workfare scheme, which amounts to slave labour. You don’t have any problems with any of that?The economic boost figures are clever wording by Asda’s number crunchers. I can’t knock their PR though. It’s obviously worked on you.’

Adrian Lane: (no reply)

Me: ‘As a seasoned activist, I’m concerned by some of your tactics, especially the posting of photographs and screenshots of Co-Op employees. Can you justify that?’

Adrian Lane: (no reply)

***

I guess that it can only be a good thing for their campaign that he has disappeared off the face of the earth. I did try to interview other admin from the group in order to shed a fairer light on their campaign, assuming that tactically their direction had changed, but they declined.

I have interviewed members of the No Asda campaign, but will blog that separately. Their statement is pretty clear, though :-

This is one battle we don’t want to have to fight, but a concerned group of us in Cinderford and surrounding areas have had to, to counter what we consider as a divisive campaign against a co-operative company owned by the community, in favour of the world’s biggest retailer, Asda, owned by the American corporation, Walmart. The Asda price may be cheaper, but that’s because of the exploitation of producers both in Britain and abroad, predatory pricing and loss-leaders to wipe out any retail opposition, and lower pay and poor conditions for its workforce (earning on average 20% less than other stores). We don’t think the personal savings of consumers are worth this exploitation, as well as the likelihood of killing off independent shops and the Co-op – a large local employer.

We have come out in opposition to Asda to counter the claim of pro-Asda campaigners, repeated in the media, that they speak for the town and Forest of Dean. They do not. We also welcome debate for and against the Asda proposal off Valley Road in Cinderford, and will not censor comments unless they are obviously abusive, libellous or personal. The campaigners want to send a message to the media, councillors, and the Co-op store that everyone wants Asda. We consider it would be a disaster for the town and Forest of Dean.If you don’t want Cinderford to turn into a ghost town, and want to preserve the independence of the Forest from multinational sharks to the detriment of future prosperity, then make yourself heard!’

***

I don’t have any personal gripes with those that support Asda coming. In times of such unnecessary cuts and crucifixion of services and benefits coming from the government, it’s fairly natural for folks to worry about money and think of themselves first with short term solutions. I just feel rather sad to see such a divide caused by a multi-national corporation along with bad planning in a once solid community who have fought off and won against those that wish to force this unique area into becoming as controlled and impotent as almost everywhere else. No doubt I’ll be accused of wanting to keep Cinderford in the dark ages, when actually I think it has massive potential to be at the forefront of community independence.

Having seen many community co-operatives spring up over the last few years with some amazing success, including a Food Sovereignty Co-op in the Forest, I’ve set up a Cinderford Community Shop Project group. It’s only on Facebook so far in order to gauge interest, but hopefully will expand and be fruitful. The big argument from pro-Asda campaigners seems to be about price and choice along with so much not being available in the town. Let’s see how many folks are willing to put some time and energy into that, rather than the quick fix, rather lazy outlook that Asda will make it all better.

It won’t.

Letter from Forest of Dean MP Mark Harper – 28th Feb 2011

FORESTRY consultation ends and forestry clauses will be removed from the Public Bodies Bill

You have written to me previously regarding your concerns about the Forest of Dean. I thought you might appreciate an update following the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman MP, in the House of Commons on 17th February.

In her statement the Secretary of State announced that the Government will remove the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, end the consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate and set up a panel of independent experts to advise the government on the future of forestry and woodland policy with better protection for access and other public benefits from our woodlands.

You can read the statement in full at http://ww2.defra.gov.uk/news/2011/02/17/futureforestry

I know from my own postbag and from listening to constituents that the public were not happy with what was proposed. I told those who attended the public meeting I held recently that ministers would listen to the consultation. The early responses to that consultation were clear so we listened and acted promptly.

That is a welcome difference from the sham consultation on Post Office closures which took place under the last Government and which generated my biggest ever postbag but went ahead anyway.

The forestry clauses in the Public Bodies Bill have also fuelled concern in the Forest of Dean so I am pleased to see that they are being removed by the Government.

I hope that you will welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement.

Yours sincerely

Mark Harper MP

Love the Trees!

The fight against the government’s plans to sell off ALL of our public forests and woodland will hit Weston-Super-Mare from 8pm on Saturday 12th February.

The Something Else Tea Tent , based in the Forest of Dean, will be hosting a night of amazing music and dance to raise funds and awareness for the Hands Off Our Forest campaign in the popular live music venue Decades on Carlton Street.

Resident DJ for the evening will be no less than star of Rude Boy and punk culture extraordinaire Ray Gange.

The impressive line-up includes:-

The Boot Hill All Stars with their very own brand of banjo driven Hoedown Stomp..

Cosmo with his unique and diverse style consisting of punk, folk, hip-hop, human beatboxing, bluegrass and cowpunk..

Skewwhiff , a quirky four piece Indie Punk band with delicious female vocals..

Weston’s own The Self Inflicted (formerly The Ranting Jokers), a fine cocktail of covers and self-penned dirty punk..

..and The Something Else Tea Tent’s very own Muddy Summers and the Dirty Field Whores , best described as folking bluebilly, will be playing a short set in among some informative speeches from HOOF campaigners.

As if that isn’t enough, you can expect some sassy dancing from the gorgeous The Red Hot Frilly Kickers and the debut performance of ‘Backs to the Axe’ from The Something Else Tree Wenches..

..and as it’s Valentine’s weekend, you’ll even be able to hug a tree nymph!

Entry by donation on the door.

The Spirit of Warren James..

(Back in 1808
by order of the state
began the enclosure
of this magical place
stripping the locals
of their livelihood
in the name of the navy
and its ship building wood..)

The crown had hit the poor
here some thirty years before
with their free market desires
they destroyed the Miner’s Law..
In came the industrialists
profiteering from the land
and the ancient rights of Foresters
did turn to cap in hand..

The fencing of the Dean
was supposed to have been
for no more than twenty years
so when no changes were seen
the locals petitioned
for their rights to be returned
but for three more long years
their survival pleas were spurned..

Then a man by the name
of Warren James
by 1831
had tired of their games..
Civility was futile
so he gave a call to arms
for the Free Miners to tear
those fences down..

And so it began
led by the passion of this man..
A hundred or more gathered
to take back their land..
Machen, the surveyor, mustered
half as many men..
They came, they saw, they couldn’t
beat the axe and left again..

For three more days
they ripped most of that fence away..
more than two thousand strong
when the military came..
armed with a warrant
to take James down..
so the Foresters dispersed
under the arms of the crown..

Warren James
now a pawn in their games
was at first sentanced to death
in a bid to stop the same
mob rule reoccuring..
how dare folks fight for their rights?!
Then the judge altered James’ fate
to transportation for life..

He survived the convict’s ride
while those around him died..
his life now in Van Diemen’s Land
but with home still on his side..
While he moved around the labour camps,
his spirit lashed and hardened
the Foresters, and even Machen
fought to get him pardoned..

While they won their fight
to give this man some light
the pardon didn’t come
with a free passage right..
It took seven months to reach him
and he never sent word home..
already in poor health
some five years on he died alone..

So here’s to Warren James
a scapegoat in their games
two hundred years on
and their agenda feels the same..
but the Forest spirit
is still unfaltering
and when they try to take what’s ours
may we win..for him..

xx

Reply from MP Mark Harper re: Selling the Forest of Dean..

(incl handwritten P.S.)

Thank you for contacting me about the Government’s proposals for the management of our Forests. I can understand you being concerned in light of some of the press speculation that preceded the letterfrom Jim Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, on what the government plans actually are.

To help make this clear and reassure you about the issues you have raised with me I have enclosed a copy of this letter which I am sure you will find both informative and reassuring.

As you will read in the letter the Government has explicitly committed itself to the protection “of our most valuable and biodiverse forests”. Also, the Government has emphasised that “full measures will remain in place to preserve the public benefits of woods and forests under any new ownership arrangements” and “public rights of way and access will be unaffected, statutory protection for wildlife will remain in force and there will be grant incentives for new planting”.

Based upon the Minister’s letter I can assure you that all the things the public values about the Forest of Dean including the ones you’ve written to me about will be protected under the Government’s new approach to the ownership and management of woodlands and forests. However, the Government will be consulting on its plans later this year and I would encourage you to respond to that consultation, copying me, as Ministers are keen to make sure that they listen to the views of the public.

The Goverrnment is trying to shift the balance of power from “Big Government” to “Big Society” by giving individuals, businesses, civil society organisations and local authorities a bigger role in protecting the natural environment and a much bigger say about our priorities for it. Instead of bureaucrats based in London telling us how to run the Forest the Government’s plans open the door for local people to take charge of our Forest and make the day to day decisions on how it’s managed.

There have been, for example, claims that the Forest is about to be cut down to make way for recreation parks. This is, of course, false. Not one tree can be felled without DEFRA giving a license for it and there are various legal safeguards such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act as well as tough planning controls which will prevent our Forest being at risk. I have also seen speculation about what the Government’s plans could mean for some of the Forest’s ancient traditions but these, like the trees themselves, are protected by law.

All the things we enjoy about the Forest are safe and it is the Government’s view that our woodlands and forests will be better off in the hands of the communities and groups that treasure them rather than in the hands of central Government. I think that the opportunity to own and control our Forest locally is not one we should give up lightly.

Yours Sincerely,

Mark Harper

(..then handwritten..)

P.S. The Points West report wasn’t quite right – I am not steering this bill through Parliament. As you know I live here and love this place, there really is no threat to all the things we value. I really think that it’s worth looking at a local solution where local people are in control.

My letter to MP Mark Harper re: Selling the Forest of Dean..

 

Dear Mark,

I am writing to you with deep concern regarding the proposed sale of the Forest of Dean.

I do not believe that an area of such historical and environmental importance would be safe in the hands of private ownership in the long term. While I am not naive enough to believe that there will be instant land clearing and new builds popping up everywhere, a takeover such as this cannot guarantee the preservation of this truly beautiful area in the long term future.

I am not about to spout the history and ecology of the forest at you as I am sure, or would certainly hope as a resident and our MP, that you are already more than aware of it.

The official line is that nothing will really change apart from who benefits from the revenue,  but I, among many others, may be excused from having any faith in this after witnessing so much government back-peddling of late, and also the disastrous effect that previous mass privatisation has had on our economy.

As our representative in parliament, I am bewildered as to why you are endorsing this sell off and steering it through parliament, and I am very keen to hear your justification for doing so. You must be aware of the fight that the forest community have in us after witnessing recent victories such as saving the Dilke and Lydney hospitals, and helping stop Tesco from monopolising Cinderford.

I am aware that this must be quite difficult for you in a career versus constituents sense, but strip it down and it is all very ‘love and marriage’.

Obviously it is in all of our interests to have you on side, but the fight will go on regardless, and despite our completely opposing political views I would prefer to stand on the same side of the line with you as  my representative IN government over standing against you as a representative OF government.

I look forward to reading your response.