John Harris

Journalist & Author

Costa Coffee drops plans for Totnes outlet after protests

Chain of 1,400 cafes across UK wakes up and smells the support for local coffee after meeting with mayor and MP

Costa Coffee has abandoned plans to open a new outlet in the Devon town of Totnes after months of protests by a campaign group.

The chain’s plans had been approved by the local district council, and the 70-seat outlet had been expected to open this year, but Costa now claims to have “recognised the strength of feeling” about its arrival and has decided to pull out.

In August Costa told the Guardian that it aimed “to add to the vibrancy of the town and support the local community … by adding vibrancy [and] complementing what Totnes currently offers”.

Later that month the chain’s managing director, Chris Rogers, met Totnes’s mayor, Pruw Boswell, and the town’s Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston, both of whom were opposed to Costa’s arrival and supportive of the local “Say no to Costa” campaign. Costa now says the discussion resulted in its about-turn.

“We had an open and constructive discussion and as a result … we have carefully considered the points made and decided not to open on Totnes high street,” said a company statement.

A letter signed by all three parties acknowledges Costa’s 19 outlets in Devon and their use of milk and food from the county. But it describes Totnes as “a town with a long and proud history of independent retailers”, which has “one of the lowest percentages of branded stores of any town of its size in the UK, very few empty shop fronts, as well as a very high proportion of places selling coffee”.

Campaigners put the number of coffee-selling businesses in the town – population 7,500 – at 42. Totnes is the home of the UK’s original transition town project, which is aimed at “strengthening the local economy, reducing the cost of living and preparing for a future with less oil and a changing climate”, partly via a local currency. The anti-Costa campaign drew much of its energy and nous from the work of Transition Town Totnes.

A petition expressing opposition to the chain’s arrival collected 5,749 signatures, 75% of which were said to have come from the town or its surrounding areas. Campaigners threatened to greet Costa’s opening with a campaign of resistance: among the ideas proposed were encouraging locals to order tap water and drink it as slowly as possible, covering the Costa outlet’s exterior in hostile posters, and encouraging a local boycott.

The anti-Costa campaigner and Transition Town Totnes action manager Frances Northrop said Costa’s decision “said something about a company actually coming to visit a place and understanding it, rather than sticking a pin in a map”.

She added: “This is a massive achievement, and it could be a turning point in terms of chains getting too big. The idea of communities standing up and saying ‘you’re not right for us’ has now got a lot more traction than it would have had before.”

Costa’s statement about Totnes says it is “proud to be a successful British company employing 10,000 people, the majority of whom are under 25″. It says that “in all communities in which we operate, we seek to be a force for good, contributing to growth, creating jobs, and supporting the local economy”.

The company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Whitbread plc, is now the UK’s biggest coffee chain, operating 1,400 outlets. It recently announced plans for 350 more, and its chief executive, Andy Harrison, has talked of increasing the number of branches to as many as 2,000. But the chain’s founder, Bruno Costa, who sold the business to Whitbread in 1995, has recently drawn attention to the chain’s domination of the coffee shop market.

Costa now lives in Purley, Croydon, where Costa has just opened its sixth outlet. “As far as the coffee business is concerned, like here in Purley, I know it is monopolised by these three or four companies that don’t give much chance to the smaller ones,” he told the Croydon Advertiser. “It reflects what the supermarkets have done to smaller shops in the high streets.”

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