I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.
Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.
The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet. When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’. So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.
In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.
Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.
Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true. I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website. There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.
As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett. He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!
As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!
Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part. While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.
It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it. Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley Community‘ Facebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus. This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.
When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up. By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!
The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.
Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.
As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.
The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.
So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus. I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline. It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.
We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.
However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.
One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, usually in Service Updates, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“. That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!
There’s still some room on top for this service! Thank you for your support.
[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]