A lively and long-running row over plans to build a Tesco superstore in a Birmingham suburb – involving allegations of libel, intimidation and contempt of parliament – has finally ended in favour of the retail giant, reveals Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale
An attempt to compulsorily purchase land needed to allow a former rundown shopping centre in Birmingham to be replaced by a giant Tesco store has been approved by Local Government Secretary John Denham and Transport Secretary Lord Adonis.
The decision, which will see a Tesco extra store placed on the site of the former Swan Shopping Centre in Yardley appears to have put paid to a rival scheme promoted by local businessman Jeremy Knight Adams.
Mr Knight Adams, who has owned the land subject to the compulsory purchase order for 20 years, has steadfastly refused to sell to Tesco, arguing that his plans for a range of shops, bars, restaurants, offices, community facilities, a hotel, and a medical centre would be better for Yardley than a superstore.
The clash between Mr Knight Adams and Tesco saw local Liberal Democrat councillors and Yardley MP John Hemming support the retail giant.
Some community groups, however, objected to Tesco’s presence, which they claimed would squeeze out small traders.
There were concerns about Birmingham City Council’s role, since the local authority stands to gain by selling the Swan shopping centre to Tesco.
Arguments about the merits of the rival schemes shifted from community politics to the courts after a planning inquiry into the council’s compulsory purchase order got off the ground last year.
A Liberal Democrat Focus leaflet, in the name of Mr Hemming, questioned the motives of a landowner who was holding up construction of the superstore by objecting to compulsory purchase.
Although Mr Knight Adams was not named, his lawyers argued successfully that the words must have been referring to him.
He succeeded in using the threat of legal action to force Mr Hemming to “apologise unreservedly” and withdraw the leaflet.
Mr Hemming responded by raising the matter in the House of Commons, using parliamentary privilege to accuse Mr Knight Adams’ lawyers of trying to “intimidate” him into silence. MPs agreed to hold an inquiry into whether leading London law firm Withers, hired by Mr Knight Adams, had tried to silence him by seeking an assurance that he would not repeat allegations about the Swan shopping centre saga in the House of Commons.
The request was made by the firm during negotiations about the MP’s apology for the Focus leaflet.
Such a “gagging order”, according to Mr Hemming, would strike at the very heart of parliamentary privilege. MPs have been allowed to speak out in the Commons without fear of being sued for slander since King Charles I unsuccessfully tried to silence the House in the 17th century.
Mr Hemming told MPs that the delay in proceeding with the Swan scheme meant that building work had stalled, with severe consequences for local people. He complained about “senior citizens who are in a vulnerable situation, who through the actions of one man, Mr Jeremy Knight Adams, have to live in a building site”.
Mr Knight Adams responded by setting up a website to put his side of the story.
He said he was simply fighting to ensure that local residents got “a high quality, mixed-use development that will provide a sense of community” instead of just a Tesco Extra.
Planning inspectors ruled there was a “compelling case in the public interest” for the compulsory purchase to go ahead.
Mr Hemming said: “I am pleased that the Secretary of State has found for the proposed development. The objection has caused months of delay and stopped the project in its tracks.”
He said Tesco’s involvement would result in major improvement to the local area, including a £3 million contribution to improve Oaklands Park.
Mr Hemming added: “We will also see hundreds of new jobs for local people, improvements to the road and a new shopping centre.”
Mr Knight Adams is abroad and could not be contacted.