How Asda manipulated the Woodstock pub planning consultation

Adrian Short · 16 June 2015

UPDATED 19 June 2015:

The overall effect of this revision is to revise upwards the number of form letters sent by Asda and to correspondingly revise downwards the number of apparent independent letters of support sent by members of the public.

UPDATED 14 July 2015:

I made a complaint about this to Sutton Council. This was their response.

Woodstock pub, Stonecot Hill, Sutton

Contents


In September 2014, Asda applied to Sutton Council for planning permission to knock down the Woodstock pub on Stonecot Hill in Sutton and replace it with a single-storey supermarket. Permission was granted at Sutton’s planning committee in January 2015. Seven Lib Dem councillors voted to approve the scheme and two Tories voted against.

Today, the pub is being demolished.

Sutton Council ran two public consultation periods for the scheme, one for six weeks starting in September 2014 and another for three weeks starting in December 2014 following a substantial revision to the application. Planning officers collated the letters of support and objection from members of the public and presented the figures in their report to the planning committee. Their summary looks like this:

  Objections Support
SM1 8 56
SM2 0 16
SM3 23 20
SM4 17 17
SM5 1 24
SM6 2 7
SM7 0 1
KT 4 20
CR4 0 5
CR0 2 2
SW19 0 3
SW20 3 3
Other 10 21
TOTAL 70 195

Planning applications aren’t meant to be popularity contests. They’re meant to be assessed against the relevant local, regional and national planning policies. Nonetheless, the level of support for and opposition to a proposal does influence local councillors on the planning committee. In the committee meeting there was some discussion of these figures. Asda and their developers referred to the supposed level of local support when selling their plan to the committee and councillors mentioned these figures in their summing up when they announced their voting decisions.

At first sight it looks like there is overwhelming support for Asda’s plans. These figures show nearly 2.8 times as many people in support as those opposed.

But let’s take a closer look.

How local is the support and opposition?

Planning officers quite rightly break down the figures by postcode to show the rough location of the respondents to the consultation. Location matters here. Depending on the size and nature of the proposed scheme, its impact may be felt over a wider or smaller area. This application is a relatively small one. Stonecot Hill is a local centre with around 80 shops. The Woodstock pub is the largest publicly-accessible building in the neighbourhood and dominates a large site on one corner of the area’s main crossroads. So what happens here is a big deal for Stonecot Hill and local people who live, work and visit the area but it doesn’t have much direct impact on anyone else.

Whitham's calculation

Tory councillor (since resigned from the party) Graham Whitham was quick to spot a possible anomaly in the figures and questioned a local resident who spoke at the committee to support Asda’s plan (at 47m 35s in the audio recording):

WHITHAM: What I’m seeking is just your guidance. Down the bottom of the page if you would just run your eye over those postcodes, and perhaps you could give an indication to us please, which ones could be deemed to be local postcodes.

RESIDENT: SM3 and SM4.

WHITHAM: So it’s SM3 and SM4, and SM…?

(Comments from others.)

WHITHAM: No, sorry, I’m asking one person please, otherwise… SM…?

RESIDENT: SM3 and SM4 I believe are the local ones.

WHITHAM: Would any others throw themeslves up as being local. I was wondering particularly about the KT ones because I do know parts of this borough…

RESIDENT: Kingston.

WHITHAM: Parts of this borough are very hard on Kingston.

(Inaudible general discussion.)

WHITHAM: So would you draw the conclusion that I would from that, that the local community on that basis is rather split down the middle as to the pros and cons of this application?

RESIDENT: I can’t speak for these 17 people here but I can speak for the neighbours local to the pub and we’re the ones that have to suffer it. Unfortunately this is the first time I’ve been involved in this sort of thing but I’ve looked on the development and people’s letters that have been writing in and even the tweets. There are people as far as Brighton. People who’ve probably never even used the pub. All I can say to you is that a lot of these problems are associated with the local people. The postcode is one thing, it’s quite a big area but the ones local to the pub and I mean the ones a few doors away are the ones who’ve experienced all the problems that have gone on. We’re the ones I feel are more important not the people who may or may not have used the pub.

Councillor Whitham is referring to this extract from the table:

  Objections Support
SM3 23 20
SM4 17 17
TOTAL 40 37
% of SM3 and SM4 52% 48%

This resident supporter’s point that the immediate neighbours of the pub are heavily impacted by what happens there is entirely reasonable. But it doesn’t get to the bottom of what’s going on with the letters of support and objection. Councillor Witham is quite right that if you focus on SM3 and SM4 postcodes you go from the balance being weighted 2.8 times in favour of supporting Asda’s application to a small majority against it. It’s fair enough to say, as Whitham does, that this is roughly even. For context: the Woodstock pub site is in SM3 and very close to the boundary with SM4. So close, in fact, that some of the neighbour notification letters sent by Sutton Council and inviting comments went to SM4 addresses.

So how do we explain this large discrepancy between how people who live close to the site felt about it and the balance of support and objection from people elsewhere? Is there some material reason why people who live further away from the pub are generally more likely to support Asda’s plan or is there something else going on? How do we explain the fact that there were more supporters of Asda’s plan in SM1 (central Sutton) and even more from Carshalton (SM5) which is on the far side of the borough than there were from SM3 where the pub is sited? Is it really credible that only one person in SM5 wrote to oppose Asda’s plans but 24 wrote to support them?

Converting the table to percentages shows this discrepancy more clearly. This shows the proportion of letters either for or against that came from each postcode district. Unless there is a material reason for people in different areas to feel differently about the issue, we’d expect the percentages in each row to be roughly equal, regardless of the overall numbers of supporters and objectors. But they aren’t even close.

  % of all objections % of all support
SM1 11% 28%
SM2 1% 8%
SM3 43% 13%
SM4 27% 11%
SM5 3% 12%
SM6 4% 3%
SM7 0% 1%
KT 7% 11%
Other 4% 13%
TOTAL 100% 100%

Taking SM3 and SM4 together again shows opposition we’d expect for a local scheme on the boundary of those two postcodes: 70% of the opponents came from there. But only 24% of the supporters did, while 28% of the supporters came from SM1 alone. Over three quarters of Asda’s supporters don’t live in the postcode district where the pub is or in its nearest neighbour. So if they’re not local people, who are they?

The mystery is easily solved by looking at the letters themselves.

Sutton Council publishes public responses to its planning consultations on its website. They’re not very easy to access because you have to download them one by one but I wrote a quick program to do it. When you look at the supporters’ letters you find 140 form letters written and sent on a single day, 8 October 2014. Collectively they represent 83% of the supporting letters received in the original six-week consultation from September 2014.

And where did they come from?

Asda stall in Sutton town centre superstore

So 140 of the 169 letters in support of Asda’s planning application in the first six-week public consultation were substantially written by Asda, signed by Asda customers and staff (as we’ll see) in Asda’s huge superstore in Sutton town centre and sent in as a batch by Asda to Sutton Council. They were then accepted by Sutton Council planning officers as valid repsonses to the consultation. In six weeks, only 29 people wrote independently of Asda to support the scheme – that’s less than half of the 69 people who wrote to oppose it.

Let’s take a look at some of Asda’s letters.

Asda's form letters

This is the general template. There were 14 letters like this one where the person writing gave absolutely no reason for their support. This is no better than a reason-free petition and does nothing to help planning officers understand why someone supports or opposes the plan, let alone to help them assess it on material planning grounds.

Asda blank letter

Some people seemed curiously misinformed, especially given that Adsa’s planners were standing over them while they wrote the letters.

This person from Chessington (KT9) thinks that the site is “currently vacant” in October 2014. In fact, the pub was open for business until April 2015 and is only now being demolished in June:

Replace the area that is currently vacant with a good cause.

And here’s another one from SM2 making the same obvious mistake:

Pubs not trading and needs a new development.

and another one from Cheam who thinks the pub’s “not trading” and there isn’t much shopping:

The pub is not trading and it is a waste of space. There is not much shopping.

I suppose there isn’t much shopping on Stonecot Hill unless you include the Co-op supermarket right next door and the other 80 shops in the immediate area.

This person from SM2 seems to think that the Woodstock is an “empty building” (it was open as a pub at the time) and that the new Asda supermarket would go into it (the plan is to knock it down and build a new supermarket):

Useful use of an empty building. More jobs.

How could these people have been so confused?

This person from Beddington (CR0) at least made it obvious that they probably didn’t know what they were talking about:

I don't see why not. Probably much needed.

Why not? Or even, why? Perhaps if they’d ever been to Stonecot Hill they’d have an opinion that mattered. Still, it was good enough for Sutton Council to count it as a letter of support.

This person from central Sutton (SM1) thought they were writing to Asda for a job rather than writing to Sutton Council to support a planning application:

I'm interested in a job. Please contact me.

Asda still sent it in and Sutton Council’s planning officers still counted it as a letter of support.

And this person didn’t need a job at Asda because they already had one:

I already work at Asda and love my job so think it would be good to provide jobs for the area!

It’s good to know that Asda staff are in favour of more Asda stores. That really helps the planning committee understand what the public thinks.

And here’s another member of Asda staff who fully supports Asda’s planning application:

I work for Asda in Sutton. It will provide new jobs in the area.

I asked Asda how many members of their staff wrote letters to support their own planning application. Oddly enough I didn’t get a straight answer.

This Asda customer from Burgh Heath (KT20) seemed to think they were writing a consumer review rather than commenting on a planning application:

As a customer of Asda's Burgh Heath store, I am extremely impressed by quality, efficiency and helpfulness of staff.

While this Asda customer who didn’t even give their town or postcode had a very unusual turn of phrase for someone supposedly writing in their own words:

Asda letter antisocial behaviour

This exact phrase was also used by the supposedly independent local resident who spoke for several minutes at the planning committee in favour of the application (at 39m 50s in the audio recording):

RESIDENT: It will remove a use associated with antisocial behaviour.

No-one speaks like this except public relations consultants for planning projects. To be clear: the person writing the letter sent in by Asda and the resident who spoke at the meeting are not the same person. We already know that Asda are in the business of putting food in people’s mouths. I wasn’t previously aware that they put words in people’s mouths too.

Why shouldn't Asda do this?

So Asda has handed out pre-printed form letters to its staff and customers in Sutton town centre, got them to sign the letters and in most cases add a brief comment, and sent them in as a batch to Sutton Council. These are real people. They’ve expressed a view. Why shouldn’t they have their say just like anyone else?

Planning consultations are, as the name says, consultations. They’re not opinion polls. The purpose of a consultation is to seek views, arguments and information from people who are knowledgeable about the proposal, and in most cases, from those actually affected by it. While the responses for and against a proposal are counted, the main purpose of seeking comment is so that planning officers can assess the impact of the proposal on people who will be affected by it and judge the application against relevant planning policies.

The Art of Consultation by Jones and Gammell puts it well:

Consultation is not a vote or referendum; opinions are solicited but the decision-maker is not bound by the results. However, it is about holding a dialogue and encouraging debate, and when it is done well it can exert influence and lead to positive change.

If you solicit responses to a planning consultation among a group of people who are mostly unknowledgeable about the issues and unaffected by the outcome you get what we see here: meaningless and irrelevant comments from people who in most cases are entirely unconstrained in the view they express or the consequences of it: whether the plan is approved or not, it won’t affect them at all.

I’m an opponent of Asda’s plan. I’ve not been so keen on the way the Woodstock pub has been run in recent years but I think it’s the best building in the area and it could be well used either as a better-run pub or as something else. Moreover, I think Asda’s plan is an underdevelopment of the site that clearly could accommodate some housing as well as retail space. But I absolutely respect the views of other local people who feel differently. I can disagree with them about what I think might be right for Stonecot Hill, and we might have different views on what we feel is convenient or amenable for us as individuals. But I don’t presume that my opinion is worth more than my neighbours’. And importantly, I know that when my neighbours write to Sutton Council, as some of them have done, saying that they think Asda’s plan should go ahead, they are accepting the risk that if they have made a poor judgement they will have to live with it. Opinions are cheap. If some information is put before me, I might be able to form a view on a planning application in Newcastle or Nairobi, but it probably won’t affect me. But when I respond to a supposedly democratic planning consultation, that’s an action that should have consequences for me. My views on the matter, and whether I submit that view to the planning process at all, should be tempered by the understanding that I will have to live with the outcome.

The same thing happens when we vote in elections. Most of us have some kind of view about politics and many of us vote. Some people might be more knowledgeable about the issues than others. But all of us know that when we vote, we run the risk of being represented and governed by the people we chose. So we choose carefully.

By soliciting responses to a planning consultation among a group of people who have mostly not heard of the Woodstock pub, been to Stonecot Hill or will in any way be affected by the decision, Asda has undermined the core principle at the heart of the planning consultation process, which is that whatever view someone takes on the matter, they are genuinely invested in the outcome.

We shouldn’t be surprised that there is so much uninformed and misinformed nonsense in the letters from Asda’s staff and customers. Most of them don’t come from people who have ever been to Stonecot Hill. Only 19 of the 140 letters sent by Asda came from SM3 and SM4 postcodes. That’s just 14%. By contrast, 70% of the letters opposed to Asda’s plan came from local people in SM3 and SM4.

Asda is unconcerned about bolstering the planning consultation with substantive comments from knowledgable and concerned people. It just wants to bump up the numbers on its side of the argument. So it has recruited its own staff and customers to unwittingly manipulate and mislead the planning committee entirely for its own ends. The views of people whose only knowledge of the issue is a brief one-sided presentation from the applicant should rightly count for nothing. Rather than adding to the debate, Asda’s manufactured responses have drowned out the voices of local people concerned and affected by the issue, whether they support Asda’s plan or oppose it.

These letters from Asda have made a mockery of the planning consultation. The only thing they really tell us is that Asda has a superstore in Sutton town centre that has thousands of customers a day. If they can collect 140 blank or poorly-informed letters from people who mostly have never been to Stonecot Hill in one day they can probably get 1000 in a week. Unfortunately, because Sutton Council’s planning officers didn’t tell the planning committee where these letters had come from they were taken as demonstrating a level of local support for Asda’s plan that really wasn’t there at all.

Did Asda's letters influence the plannning committee?

Planning applications are supposedly decided according to planning policy rather than public opinion. But experience and basic psychology suggests that councillors on the planning committee are likely to be influenced when there appears to be a significant majority of public opinion for or against a proposal. The fact that Asda’s application was passed despite being very clearly contrary to policy DM35 that requires mixed-use development in town and local centres suggests that there were other factors at play. (Asda’s plan is a single-storey, single-use supermarket on a huge site in the middle of a shopping parade where every other shop has a flat above it.)

We’ve seen above how Councillor Whitham questioned a resident about the number of letters for and against Asda’s application. But even extracting out the local SM3 and SM4 postcodes does not tell the full story. Whitham could not have known that only 22 people from those postcodes sent their own letters to the council to support Asda – fewer even than the 37 that were apparent to him and the rest of the committee at the time. They simply hadn’t been given the full picture by planning officers.

After the decision, the committee chair, Councillor Richard Clifton, mentioned the apparent results of the consultation on his blog (emphasis mine):

January 21. A meeting of Sutton’s Planning Committee. Only two items on the agenda and both sites I have recently visited – the pub in Stonecot Hill where ASDA want to build a supermarket and some land off Church Hill Road where it is proposed to build two detached houses. We passed both applications. The pub, when I visited it, had very few customers and a neglected feel. Consultation showed local people supported the ADSA proposal.

and also used the supposed public support for Asda when talking to the Sutton Guardian about the committee decision (emphasis mine):

Councillor Richard Clifton, planning committee chairman, said that while he personally regretted the loss of the building he felt the overall benefit to the community was to be recognised.

He said: ‘I don’t think anyone can say that the residents were particularly against it.’

and Clifton repeats this again in the comments below the article (5 Feb, 11:23pm):

The Council’s consultation produced more responses supporting ASDA than against

The applicant (Asda/Lateral Property Group) used the letters to help make their case to the committee (from 1h 02m in the audio recording):

APPLICANT: We always engage with the local community so that improvements can be made before submission. The council has received 265 letters. 74% were in support of this application. Further important changes were made post-submission to reflect additional important comments by officers and local residents. These were then reconsulted on. 26 further letters of support were received with only one additional objection: 96% support.

The actual numbers for the first consultation according to the officer’s report were 169 in support, 69 opposed, totalling 238. That’s 71% apparent support if you want to include the 140 letters from Asda that are part of that 169. If we deduct them, the support in the first consultation is 29 out of 98 which is 30%. Looking at it from the other side, 70% of the people who sent in their own letter in the first consultation opposed the scheme – quite the opposite of the appearance that Asda managed to manufacture. Aside from dishonestly not mentioning the source of 140 letters in favour of their own application, the applicant has also apparently made an honest error by mistaking the total for both consultations (265 letters) for the total for the first consultation (238 letters). The 26 supposedly further letters of support and one against should be included in the 265 rather than additional to it.

Is “dishonestly” too strong a word? How would the committee have reacted had the applicant said: “We collected 140 pre-printed letters of support from our staff and customers in our superstore in Sutton town centre and sent them in as a batch. That’s where 83% of our supporters came from.”? That fact was clearly pertinent to the discussion and the applicant didn’t mention it.

Pollock's calculation

Councillor Hamish Pollock uses the consultation letters as part of his rationale when summing up how he’s deciding to vote (at 1h 40m 35s in the audio recording:

Local opinion, if you look at the SM1 and SM3 postcodes, objectors and supporters, it’s roughly the same proportion as the overall, 26%, 74%. It’s very similar to that. So locally, people seem to be in favour of the scheme as being proposed. So I will be supporting the scheme.

Councillor Pollock is mistaken here that SM1 is a “local” postcode. It is, however, the centre of the catchment area of Asda’s superstore on Sutton high street.

Let’s do that calculation anyway (we’re using the offical figures including Asda’s own letters here):

  Objections Support
SM1 8 56
SM3 23 20
TOTAL 31 76
% of SM1 and SM3 29% 71%

Councillor Pollock’s calculation here is correct that this is roughly equal to the overall percentage breakdown of 26%/74% for opponents/supporters. But what he doesn’t spot or question is why there is apparently a small majority of objectors over supporters in SM3 while there are seven times as many supporters as objectors in SM1. As we discussed earlier, regardless of the overall numbers of supporters or objectors in a place, you’d expect roughly the same proportion of support and opposition in every postcode district unless there was a specific geographical reason for people to feel differently about the scheme in different places. There wasn’t. The discrepancy here is entirely due to the 55 letters from Asda customers and staff in SM1 and another 11 in SM3 that Asda collected in its Sutton store. Only 4 people from SM1 wrote independently of Asda to support the proposal and other 10 in SM3. But Pollock wasn’t told this either by planning officers or by Asda and it’s understandable that he couldn’t easily spot what is a glaring red flag that these figures have been manipulated when it’s pointed out.

According to my own analysis, if you take out Asda’s own letters and correctly count the number of letters in each postcode district, the picture is almost the exact opposite of that presented in the officer’s report: 74%/26% against the development in these postcodes rather than the 71%/29% in favour of it that Pollock observed. It also shows that while Sutton Council apparently got the overall number of objectors correct (70), it underreported the number in SM3 as 23 rather than 30. The other 7 were lumped together under the 10 that were “other” postcodes in the council’s report. Note that the ratios of objectors/supporters in each district is actually fairly close as we’d expect (2.25, 3.0) as opposed to in the officer’s report which straddles the 1.0 line that would indicate equal numbers on each side (0.14, 1.15). This corresponds with the idea that while the level of overall response may vary between district, the balance of sentiment between objectors and supporters is unlikely to vary significantly.

  Objections Support
SM1 9 4
SM3 30 10
TOTAL 39 14
% of SM1 and SM3 74% 26%

But what Pollock should really have been doing was Whitham’s calculation that we saw earlier: looking at the responses from the SM3 and SM4 postcodes that contain or are immediately adjacent to the site.

The correct figures for that when we strip out Asda’s supporting form letters and accurately report the number of objectors are:

  Objections Support
SM3 30 10
SM4 19 10
TOTAL 49 20
% of SM3 and SM4 71% 29%

So rather than there being a tiny majority for the objectors in these districts as Whitham observed, or a two to one majority in favour of the supporters as Pollock calculated, the real figures show more than two objectors for every supporter in the areas that got the most genuine responses and where people are most likely to be familiar with the context of the proposal.

Conclusions

Sutton Council’s planning officers were seriously negligent in not making the planning committee aware that 140 of the 169 letters of support received in the first six-week consultation had been effectively written by the applicant and collected in the names of people who in most cases were not local to the proposal’s site or knowledgeable about it. They were simply Asda customers and staff visiting Asda’s store in Sutton town centre. If planning officers were not definitively aware of the source of the letters then they should have investigated. Planning officers attended the committee and sat through the discussions of the supporters’ and objectors’ letters without offering any further information that could have explained the discrepancies. Their job is to read these letters not just to count them. Consequently, the planning committee was seriously misled as to the genuine level of support and opposition to the proposal.

Asda has dishonestly misled Sutton Council’s planning committee. Even if Asda had a genuine belief that getting its customers and staff to sign form letters and sending them as a batch in support of their own application was legitimate, it should still have made the context of this support clear to the committee. It had every opportunity to do so. Instead, Asda let the committee form the impression that all the supporters of its proposal were people who had written to the council independently and on their own initiative. In fact, at least 72% (140 out of 195) of them did not. Consequently, Asda benefitted from the appearance of local support for their proposal that would have been entirely absent had it not effectively run its own separate consultation.

We cannot know whether the decision of the planning committee would have been different had planning officers informed the committee about Asda’s form letters. But we can be certain that the committee’s view of the public acceptance of Asda’s proposal would have been very different.

Recommendations

Applicants, particularly the larger ones, already have significant legitimate opportunities and resources to influence the outcome of their planning applications. They employ professional specialists such as architects, planners and lawyers to produce extensive documentation for their proposals. They can employ PR firms to hold public meetings and secure favourable media coverage, as Asda did with this scheme. They can arrange meetings with local ward councillors, as Asda did here. They have direct contact with planning officers before and during the application process. They can afford to send out mailshots: Asda twice mailed 2000 local residents about the Woodstock scheme. And they rightly get the opportunity to address the planning committee to advocate and defend their projects.

But some activities by applicants are not legitimate. Sutton Council should take urgent steps to create policies to deter “astroturfing” campaigns and other forms of undue influence on the planning process that distort public consultations and give a misleading impression of public sentiment. In the case of Asda’s plans to demolish the Woodstock pub to build a supermarket on the site, 83% of the letters supporting the scheme after a six-week consultation had been organised and sent in by Asda themselves, including letters from Asda’s own staff. Just 29 people wrote independently to support Asda’s plan, while Asda sent in 140 letters. 86% of Asda’s letters came from people living outside the relevant local area. Many were from people who clearly were unfamiliar with the area or significantly misinformed about the scheme. Sutton Council even counted a letter from someone who thought they were writing to Asda for a job as a supporter of the planning application. Sutton Council’s planning officers did not inform the committee of the source or nature of these letters and so the misleading appearance was given to them that this was independently motivated general public support for the scheme. The committee then considered this manufactured appearance of support as a factor in approving Asda’s application.

Therefore, Sutton Council should consider the following procedural proposals: