Trouble brewing on high street for Caffè Nero

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Coffee chain in row over opening branches without planning permission.


Caffè Nero has come under fire for opening its coffee shops without the correct planning permissions in place.

The chain has experienced a backlash from local businesses and councils after opening shops in several English towns in units designated as A1 retail use, and applying for A3 cafe and restaurant use retrospectively through planning appeals.

It argues that it provides a mixture of A1 and A3 services and as such the planning it requires is ambiguous. Further still, it suggests its presence is a welcome tonic for an ailing high street and that it should be provided with some flexibility.

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Independent businesses complain that Caffè Nero is using its financial might to open up stores without planning permission, launching costly appeals and continuing to trade, even when the council has turned down its initial application.

Among the towns in which the coffee chain has opened up stores under A1 use are Chippenham and Marlborough in Wiltshire, and Knaresborough and Skipton in North Yorkshire. In all but Chippenham, retrospective planning applications for conversion to A3 use have been refused by local councils as well.

However, the chain has appealed the planning decisions in Skipton and Marlborough, and is expected to do the same in Knaresborough, where it was refused planning permission on 17 December.

In Skipton, the company was granted permission for A3 use on appeal in July, while in Marlborough the appeal case will be heard on 15 January.

The councils argue that the chain cannot operate under A1 use, even if it does sell coffee cups and T-shirts as well as coffee. While the appeals are in progress, Caffè Nero is allowed to continue trading.

Wiltshire Council says: “Wiltshire has more than one example of Caffè Nero opening new premises without the necessary planning permission in place. Outlets were recently opened in Chippenham, Marlborough and Devises and the first two were the subject of retrospective planning applications. Preparations to open the Devizes outlet were already well under way by the time planning permission was granted.

“The Chippenham site was subsequently granted planning permission, but the Marlborough premises was refused and the council felt it appropriate to take formal enforcement action.
An enforcement notice has been served and this is the subject of an ongoing appeal.”

It is not illegal to carry out development without planning permission. However, the council said it and members of the planning committees are “always concerned when any development proceeds without [it].”

In response to the allegations, a Caffè Nero spokeswoman says: “Caffè Nero has expanded from five to more than 500 units in the last 15 years. Our use does not fit neatly into any of the use categories in that there is an element of A1 retail and an element of A3 restaurant in all of our stores. The balance between these is dictated by the customers in each location and is not known prior to opening.”

Hot water

The company’s conduct has attracted plenty of criticism, however.

“This tactic is really unwelcome, especially in a small town,” says Rob Perks, president of the Chippenham Chamber of Commerce. “Marlborough is a very traditional market town with lots of independent shops. The way they have come into the town has got a lot of people annoyed.

“In Chippenham, they didn’t even bother putting a request for permission in until the chamber of commerce raised the issue,” he adds.

“Then if they don’t get permission, they will just appeal it. They can take it to the Planning Inspectorate and then all the way to judicial review. It becomes a battle of nerves and can cost the council a fortune, so they tend to just give them permission in the end, whether it is the right thing for the town or not.

“Anyone could do what they are doing but no small business would want to take the risk of the costs involved. Two small independent coffee shops have closed in Chippenham since Caffè Nero opened, but everyone is powerless to do anything about it.”

Caffè Nero responds: “We now operate under more than 200 different councils. In the majority of cases councils have not questioned our use at all. In other cases they have asked us to apply for a change of use but have recognised that our use is a positive one for high streets and granted consent. In just 11 out of the 500-plus stores have councils declined planning permission. In these cases we have been able to demonstrate at planning inquiries that our use is beneficial to high streets.”

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Storm in a coffee cup: local businesses in Chippenham are frothing over council’s decision to grant Caffè Nero change of use

Many of Chippenham’s local businesses feel that Caffè Nero has an advantage over smaller independent retailers and cafes.

“I’m not bothered about the fact that we are competing with them, but it is the fact that they are being allowed to open without planning permission in a unit which should only be used for A1 retail,” says Ally Faber, who owns Caffe Crema in the town.

“The problem is that landlords are not liable for the conduct of their tenants on this issue, with the occupier holding any risk associated with planning, once someone has rented out a property, they can pretty much do what they want, and all the council can do is serve an enforcement notice, which does take time. I just find it ridiculous that someone is allowed to open and trade without planning permission,” she adds.

In Knaresborough, Caffè Nero was refused permission to convert a Clinton Cards store to A3 use on the grounds that the unit is on a prime shopping pitch, which Harrogate Borough Council wants to keep for traditional retail use.

The chain has already opened under A1 use and has continued to trade. Harrogate council will now review the company’s business activities year and is expecting Caffè Nero to launch an appeal.

A spokesperson for the council says: “If they don’t have permission to do what they are doing, we can take enforcement action and serve them a notice to stop trading. If they don’t comply, it could end up going to court.

“Our policy is that ground-floor frontages should be for retail, not for coffee shops.”

Other councils might not be able to afford to be so picky, however.

As Caffè Nero’s spokeswoman says: “We are in a time where high streets are under pressure as never before from the recession, the internet and out-of-town shopping. It is increasingly recognised in the form of the Portas review and other reports that high streets will have to evolve to survive, with many high street stalwarts, such as bookshops, record shops and electrical retailers under threat.

In these circumstances, our use, which is a high-quality, high-footfall, daytime use, has been welcomed by the vast majority of councils.”

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