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Opinion / 7 July, 2011

Leader: Sainsbury’s is wrong to use PR firm that boasts about overcoming residents’ opposition

Gung-ho PR firm choice will backfire for supermarket giant

Hackney Citizen crest identity

Another day, another high street giant bids to expand into formerly uncharted territory.

If there is an air of resignation in some quarters about the plans by Sainsbury’s to open a sizeable new store in Wilmer Place, just off Church Street in Stoke Newington, perhaps that is because of the breathtaking chutzpah of Four Communications, the PR outfit in charge of consulting on the scheme.

Stoke Newington is not Lakeside, Thurrock. Its locals are notoriously protective of the independent character of their area, and while it is true that the high street is no longer virgin territory for major brands, it retains well stocked and affordable family-owned butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers.

The owners of some of these small shops fear for their livelihoods if yet another supermarket – this one will be slightly larger than the existing Sainsbury’s store just up the road in Stamford Hill – lands on their doorstep.

Four Communications must surely have been able to predict that there would be a almighty brouhaha about these plans, and yet its website boasts about how it helped a controversial science lab get the go ahead from planners in the London Borough of Camden “despite widespread and co-ordinated local opposition”.

What’s the point of having a consultation when the company holding it makes no secret of its joy at having defied the widely-held views of local residents?

It makes a mockery of the process.

Some of those who attended an exhibition earlier this month about the supermarket plans will have heard  others bemoaning the lack of “diversity” in the room.

Their implication seemed to be that it is only white, middle class people – the kind who flock to the farmers’ market – who feel negatively towards the idea of yet another supermarket in the area. But is this really the truth?

Yes, most of those who showed up to debate with the PR men and women fitted this demographic profile. But surely that is a failure in the consultation process and not an indication that everyone but the farmers’ market denizens is happy for the plans to go ahead.

Which brings us to Lord Sainsbury, the Labour peer who, according to a piece in the Guardian earlier this year, was poised to donate £250,000 to help create a 10,000-strong army of community organisers to help “resist change imposed by state or the private sector in their neighbourhoods”.

The scheme, known as the Movement for Change, promises to empower local people and help them make their voices heard.

Apparently it’s Labour’s answer to Cameron’s Big Society, but the article reported that some people were “concerned that Labour activists trained in these methods could come into conflict with local Labour councils that might also be trying to impose unpopular policies”.

There is no suggestion that Hackney Council has a view on the suitability of the Sainsbury’s plans, but it will certainly be interesting to see which way councillors in the nearby wards  are going to jump when it comes to supporting the Wilmer Place development.

In the mean time, let us raise the cry of: “Lord Sainsbury yes, Sainsbury’s no!”

For his apparent commitment to bottom-up local government in defence of local peculiarities, the man in the House of Lords has our wholehearted support.

Related:

Sainsbury’s PR company in Hackney Council contract row

Anger over Sainsbury’s Stoke Newington ‘sham’ consultation

/ 7 July, 2011
  • andrew

    This whole issue of the “dual roles” of those who secure office on Hackney Council – councilors and mayor – needs public scrutiny.

    A disproportionate number of our councilors have extremely close ties to PR firms or lobbyists, they work for them, have worked for them, or their brothers and sisters, partners etc. run PR firms and such like.

    What attracts such people to come and run Hackney ? And why in such numbers ? Is it a co-incidence that the Olympics are just around the corner – or that so many schemes are being pushed through with apparently no community demand or support ?

    Meanwhile the rules which govern “conflicts of interest” have been eroded to a degree where most of us would be amazed at how high the bar is now set for a breach.

    A good example is that of the McShane brothers: Jonathan McShane is a PR guy, who’s brother – also a Hackney Councilor set up and ran a PR Firm which represented Bupa. Jonathan worker for a very well known PR company representing Pharmacists etc., whilst he also chaired Hackney Health Scrutiny and is now cabinet member for Health and Social Care (http://mginternet.hackney.gov.uk/mgUserInfo.aspx?UID=130) At the same time he works for the NHS by day in their public relations.

    So he promotes changes in our NHS which most of us don’t want – whilst at night he is charged with examining such initiatives on our behalf!

    I have formally challenged this but apparently it is not a conflict. Wider public understanding of can only be a good thing.

    Who is selecting these people for such roles ? And why are we allowing it.

    Keep at this story HC – it’s vital for local democracy.

  • CJM

    I wonder how many businesses, no matter their size, would use a PR firm if they could afford to.

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