Remember ‘supermarketgate’? The people of Whittlesey most certainly do -and a possible court battle with Sainsbury’s will re-ignite it

Bruce Smith attending one of many planning committees during what became known as 'supermarketgate'

Bruce Smith attending one of many planning committees during what became known as 'supermarketgate' - Credit: Archant

Legal action to force Sainsbury’s to complete the purchase of a site for a new store at Whittlesey – and an adjoining 60 acres for a country park- could begin as early as next month.

Lawyers for developer Bruce Smith have given the supermarket until January 20 to complete the contract or face their day in court.

Through his Whitacre Management Ltd development company, Mr Smith and his legal team have spent since March building their case following the 11th hour decision by Sainsbury’s to pull out.

Mr Smith is confident Sainsbury’s are in breach of contract after Fenland District Council worked laboriously to ensure the project finally secured permission within the time scale insisted upon.

“This has never been about me and the vagaries of commercial life,” said Mr Smith. “It has been about letting people down who supported me for many years and trusted me to deliver both the supermarket and the country park.

“I had to pursue the case for that reason – I could not walk away.”

Ironically Mr Smith’s legal bid comes just as Tesco, who pulled out of opening a superstore in Chatteris, revealed they are seeking permission from Fenland Council to make modifications to the mothballed £22 million store. Tesco hope by splitting it into two they will be able to sub let it more easily.

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In Whittlesey, where the land once earmarked for a Tesco store is become houses, Mr Smith said the case for a new supermarket had never been stronger.

“Hundreds of extra homes are coming to Whittlesey and near the proposed Sainsbury’s there will, within a short time, be 400 homes,” he said. “This may well persuade Sainsbury’s to think again.”

However while his confidence in the company building a supermarket is low, his confidence is strong that the site is contractually theirs to decide what to do so.

Behind the Whitacre legal threat is evidence of all planning conditions being met including some late changes demanded by Sainsbury’s and agreed by planners with just hours to the supermarket’s deadline.

Whitacre say they are giving Sainsbury’s “one last chance” to complete the purchase before, as seems increasingly likely, it ends up in a High Court battle.

“I have never been in a contractual position to force Sainsbury’s to build a store,” said Mr Smith.

“My contract with Sainsbury’s was to buy the land and jointly deliver the infrastructure and country park.

“I am presently pursuing Sainsbury’s for completion of that contract.”

On a personal level, said Mr Smith, he was upset that town councillors and a former mayor David Mason had been “snubbed” by Sainsbury’s after a fierce local bid to persuade the store to continue with the Whittlesey store.

“I remain grateful and proud of the support from the community,” said Mr Smith. “It is still very strong and is a prime reason for not letting this matter drop.”