Totnes v Costa – was the coffee chain petition over-hyped?

There has been a disturbing new development in the matter of small communities fighting to keep large coffee-shop chains out of their town centres. In the most famous case of all, the town of Totnes recently succeeded in preventing an opening by Costa Coffee – however, questions have now been asked about the massive petition which appeared to show that the entire town was against the arrival of the chain.

The case of Costa versus Totnes went on for several months, with the advantage being claimed by one side and then the other. At one point Costa’s application to open appeared to have been approved by the authorities, but the chain was then faced by a quite unprecedented display of local opposition.

Totnes is the home of the founder of the Transition Town movement, is said to be one of the most active Fairtrade towns in the UK, launched the Clonestoppers campaign to try and prevent national chains entering an area famous for its independent retailers, and even organised a coffee festival to highlight the standard of its local cafes against the proposed arrival of Costa.

A major factor of the campaign was the petition, from which it was at times suggested that a vast percentage of the local population had signed in protest against Costa. National press and broadcasting organisations used phrases such as ‘5,000 residents signed a petition…’

The reaction was such that Costa withdrew its plans for a 70-seat cafe in the town. It was widely reported that the local community had effectively beaten the giant chain.

However, the local community radio station has now suggested that the petition might not be all it had seemed to be. The chairman of Totnes FM, David Parsley, has analysed the petition, and has reported that less than a quarter of the town’s residents expressed opposition to Costa. Indeed, it is now alleged that claims suggesting the ‘whole town’ was against the chain may not be entirely accurate. It has also been suggested that local councillors and the local MP ‘uncritically’ accepted the campaigners’ word about the petition, and promoted the view that the ‘whole town’ was against Costa, when that may not have been the case.

Mr Parsley, who himself was a signatory to the petition, complained about this to Transition Town Totnes on 16 November, with copies to the local mayor and MP.

According to Transition Town Totnes, who have published the complaint, Mr Parsley alleged that these prominent people in the town had stated, on several occasions, that no-one in Totnes wanted Costa Coffee, or at the very least, that the vast majority of people in Totnes did not want Costa Coffee. By contrast, his analysis of the survey showed that 2,016 residents from a town population of 8,336 signed it. When nearby districts were included in the analysis, another interpretation could be that 2,895 from a total population of 22,869 in the town and surrounding areas expressed opposition – but either way, it was a minority figure.

It was suggested that the analysis of the petition was ‘very generous to the campaign’, in counting as for the campaign signatories who ‘probably’ lived nearby, those who seemed to have signed for a partner, and even those who had signed twice. Even when the analysis was thus ‘heavily weighted’ in favour of the anti-Costa campaign, it was still allegedly found that less than a quarter of townspeople actively objected to Costa.

According to Mr Parsley’s analysis, only 24 per cent of local residents, or 12 per cent of those living in the general nearby area, supported the NoToCosta campaign, and 63 per cent of signatures were from people who are not ‘locals’. These other signatories were not just from elsewhere in the same county, but from Scotland, London, Manchester, Norfolk, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Morocco.

Consequently, it has been alleged, claims that ‘the majority of those who live in the town were against Costa Coffee’ were not true.

The organisers of the petition and the campaign have responded remarkably mildly, saying that people continue to sign the No To Costa petition and that another analysis of the figures shows that 75 per cent of those who signed are from the local postcode area, and the rest are visitors from Exeter, Plymouth and further afield. It would appear that the campaigners’ view is that their petition undoubtedly shows a considerable anti-chain feeling.

They have said: “needless to say, we stand by our campaign.”

David Parsley has told the coffee trade magazine Coffee House that his analysis now raises a wider question of local government matters.

“I wanted to find out about the petition, because no-one had examined it. We had been told by a couple of people that a lot of out-of-towners had signed it, and when people make such claims, I like to test them.”

The result, he said, came as a surprise.

“I was surprised that people could claim a majority, when a majority had not signed the petition. I would have assumed that the mayor and the MP would have looked at it and checked the facts for themselves – they hadn’t.

“Politicians need to be brought to account. This is not now about Costa – it is about politicians making claims on things they haven’t checked.”

A spokesman for Costa was equally surprised to be told about the analysis of the petition.

The brand remarked:

“Our decision not to open in Totnes was based on a number of factors of which the petition was only part. However, it is disappointing to hear that the petition doesn’t represent the views of local people to the extent that was being suggested at the time.

“We will obviously be keeping an eye on this.”

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This story also appears on the Caffe Culture news portal, http://www.caffeculture.com.

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One Response to “Totnes v Costa – was the coffee chain petition over-hyped?”

  1. Lou Says:

    It was a petition administered by volunteers, not a census. Mr Parsley’s analysis of the petition was flawed. It did not consider the number of respondents at all. The numbers of locals that signed it far exceeded the percentage that voted in the police commissioner elections. And non residents signed the petition, which is only right given that the town is financially dependent on tourism- outside opinions are vital and many many visitors to Totnes were against Costa coming.

    There were ample opportunities for pro Costa individuals to voice concerns throughout the campaign including a well attended public meeting hosted by the council. They could have mounted a counter campaign but no one Cared enough to,do so. Only 4 members of the public supported the planning application lodged by Costa. It was opposed by around 300 people who were mostly residents, who individually took the time to write to the planning officer in charge of deciding the application. The opponents are led by a select group of individuals with business interests that may not thrive if a supermarket moved into the space.

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