AGENTS behind a scheme to build a Tesco superstore have been accused of using strong arm tactics to stop councillors making a decision on whether a discount supermarket should be allowed to be built nearby.

Members of Darlington Borough Council’s planning committee stated those working towards Tesco launching a 24-hour 3,700sq m store in Faverdale had bombarded them with calls to defer making a final decision on a plan to build a 1,900sq m Lidl store on the former SCA Packaging factory site, on Faverdale Industrial Estate.

Councillors said they had been left aghast after being sent letters, emails and receiving phone calls which featured a barrister’s opinion that it was inappropriate for the council to move forward with a decision over the Lidl plan until the Tesco application could be decided alongside it.

Leading councillors said there had been “very disturbing comments” that Tesco had made it very clear if the Lidl proposal, which also includes building a Starbucks drive-thru and a Home Bargains store, progressed “they would not commit to investing in Darlington”.

The meeting heard the calls to defer the Lidl decision had come despite the Tesco proposal being submitted to the authority nearly two years after the Lidl application.

Councillors were told the authority had subsequently taken its own legal advice which had contradicted the barrister’s view and that the Tesco and Lidl schemes were “dramatically different in their nature and scale”.

Alongside the planned Tesco superstore and a petrol station, it has been proposed to build a drive-thru McDonald’s restaurant and a Costa Coffee shop.

Cabinet member Councillor Jon Clarke, a retail expert, said the Lidl proposal was “miniscule” in comparison with the planned Tesco store, but they would act as magnets for each other.

He added: “I really objected to strong arm tactics from the number one retailer in the country. I think it’s disgraceful. They are trying it on in my opinion because the effect of a Lidl on a multi-thousand square foot Tesco is minimal.”

Councillor Hilary Allen said no outside undue influence would deter her from making a decision based upon the facts.

She said: “I don’t mind receiving a letter with a bit of a presentation, but I do object to then getting emails and I object to getting telephone calls. That to me smacks of trying to predetermine an application as is the threat of what I consider blackmail of ‘if you don’t go ahead with ours we won’t build anywhere else’.”

The committee’s chairman, Councillor Doris Jones said she had ended a phone call from representatives for the Tesco proposal very quickly and condemned the approach as having been very unprofessional. She said: “We are here to make up our own minds totally independent of anything else.”

Tesco declined to comment after the meeting.

However, Cllr Jones said the Co-op had also contacted her over the Lidl proposal, but had simply asked for a statement to be read out at the meeting, which one councillor criticised as contradictory and disingenuous.

Councillors heard the Co-op believed it was “fundamentally unfair” that Lidl had been given an opportunity to speak at the previous meeting while it had not been given the chance to present its objections. It urged the planning committee to reconsider the impact of the Lidl development on nearby shopping areas, which if approved, would lead to Co-op reviewing the viability of its stores in the Cockerton area.

Councillor Nick Wallis said the committee found itself “in a bit of a pickle” as it was essential that the Tesco and Lidl schemes were considered at the same time to consider the potential impact on Cockerton’s shops, which the meeting was told would be “ absolutely catastrophic”.

Despite the warnings, councillors agreed to grant final approval to the Lidl scheme alongside conditions over the site’s opening hours and delivery times, construction activity and contributions to transport improvements.

After the meeting a spokesman for the Lidl scheme said construction work would begin within weeks and the site could be completed within a year. The Lidl site has been derelict for more than a decade and the scheme will create about 130 jobs. Lidl’s regional head of property, David Murphy, said it had been pleased to receive strong support from local residents.