Banksy lobs a petrol bomb into the heart of the Tesco war

After two weeks of rioting, something remarkable happened: the global retail giant Tesco appeared unexpectedly in the role of downtrodden underdog last week.

Against much opposition, Tesco had won planning permission to open a small store in the bohemian district of Stokes Croft in Bristol. After the store opened, demonstrators held peaceful protests outside, but then the demo turned into a riot. Windows were smashed, not only at Tesco, and police and protesters were hurt.

A week later, with the store boarded up and festooned with graffiti, a second riot took place. All this had an unexpected effect — people who had previously opposed Tesco changed their minds. “Hurling roof tiles at police causes me to withdraw my support for the campaign,” one told me. “If you don’t want Tesco, just don’t shop there.”

Campaigners say they regret the violence, which was largely carried out by young troublemakers who had been drinking. It’s true that, on the net, you can find many films showing wanton destruction, on both nights of rioting, often accompanied by drunken laughter from the people filming. But the riots would never have happened if campaigners hadn’t whipped up objections to Tesco.

It seems particularly ironic that protests designed to support independent firms may end up putting them out of business. Toby Bywater, of Zazu’s Kitchen, had his window broken and bins set on fire. Insurance might cover that — but will it replace the 80% fall in turnover during the last fortnight? “People don’t want to visit a riot zone for dinner,” he says.

Retailers like this will not be entirely amused to learn that Banksy, the Bristol-born street artist, has created a souvenir poster commemorating the riots: it shows a petrol bomb made out of a Tesco bottle. Proceeds from the sale of £5 prints will go to a social enterprise, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC).

PRSC was set up to revive the run-down district near the city centre. One way it has done this is by curating an amazing variety of art on buildings — works by Banksy and other street artists, executed without public subsidy. Additionally, PRSC has initiated public works, including gardening and street sweeping, often working with the homeless, the unemployed and people with addictions, of whom there are many in Stokes Croft.

Many of the buildings are empty, owned by absentee landlords who have for years left the council to do repairs. Some have been taken over by squatters, and not only to live in: one terraced house operates as a “free shop” (essentially, a recycling depot for people to drop off unwanted goods and take away anything they want). An ugly, previously empty office block is now a gallery and bar with dance studios upstairs. An original Banksy decorates its front, and supporters have planted vegetables outside.

David Goldblatt, a spokesman for PRSC, describes this as a perfect example of David Cameron’s big society. And the people involved aren’t all hippies, says Goldblatt (who has dreadlocks). “The local church is behind us too.”

Stokes Croft may not be to everybody’s taste, but it does have a remarkably vibrant atmosphere. This partly explains its attraction for businesses such as Tesco, and the long-absent landlords now showing renewed interest in their properties.

Some welcome the gentrification. Others object on principle and have made Tesco the focus of their anger.

“These people are stealing our cultural capital,” Goldblatt says angrily. “The value of the area has gone up because of our work. Why should they reap the rewards?”

The founder of PRSC is Chris Chalkley. “People say, ‘If you don’t like Tesco, don’t shop there,’ but it’s not as simple as that,” he says. “In the city centre there is not much alternative. Eighty-four per cent of food retail is in the hands of the supermarkets. Tesco can afford to stay open for 10 years giving food away at a loss, but if a small retailer loses 10%, they’re finished.”

Chalkley used to run a china and glass wholesale business. “When Tesco and Ikea came to town, the retailers I supplied all closed.”

Tesco first applied to use the new site in Cheltenham Road in November 2009 but used the name of the previous owner, Jesters comedy club (there was no legal obligation to disclose its identity.) In February last year, with change of use granted, the community found out it was to be a Tesco, and a campaign started.

Planning law has no provision for people who just want their independent shops to survive, so campaigners objected on a variety of other grounds. In particular, they asked for an assessment of the impact of up to 40 delivery lorries a day. Planning officers refused to consider this but have since acknowledged that they may have made a mistake. For this reason, campaigners are seeking judicial review.

Unable to stop the store opening, objectors conducted a variety of peaceful protests. But a week later, 160 police in riot gear descended on the area, following a tip that squatters living opposite Tesco owned petrol bombs. The police presence has been described by the likes of the local Labour MP, who was there, as “heavy-handed”: there was no trouble until police arrived, says Kerry McCarthy. However, others blame the anti-Tesco campaigners for giving troublemakers a pretext.

Gill Cockwell has lived in the area for eight years and runs a bridal dressmaking business. She recently took part in the BBC’s historical reality TV series Turn Back Time: the High Street. That taught her, she says, that customers don’t always shop the way they say they will: many who say they oppose Tesco will end up shopping there — as she would, happily, herself.

“It’s only sub-standard businesses that will struggle … That’s awful, but if you can’t make it, you should do something else,” Cockwell argues.

David Trew agrees. He’s the businessman who previously owned the Tesco site. Barclays bank took over the property after Trew’s comedy business, Jesters, was put into administration in the recession. He’s since reopened, using the same name, in a grade II listed cinema across the road. So it’s not only Chalkley and the street artists who have built up Stokes Croft’s reputation. Many have put in hard work for years, Trew says angrily, and don’t need to be lectured. “What annoys me is that they want to dictate the terms of approval,” he says.

Just for the record, though, Trew says he chooses to source food for his club locally. “I could probably get a cheaper price at Tesco,” he says, “but I want to support local traders.”

1113 words. First published 8 May 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.