The corporate bully and the country town: Coles wants to force an ugly service station development on the charming Victorian town of Woodend

Giant companies and small towns. What is it about big companies that they cannot take ‘no’ for an answer? As with schoolyard bullies, there is no reasoning with a corporate thug intent on monstering its smaller, weaker victim. When a community, proud and protective of its environs and heritage, dares to resist a big corporate insistent on blighting a community in the pursuit of growth, they simply enrage the aggressor all the more.

And so it is with supermarket giant Coles, a company of the Perth-based Wesfarmers conglomerate, and the picturesque town of Woodend, 70km north of Melbourne with a population of 5000 and a history dating back to the 1850s.

Woodend, nestled in the centre of the scenic Macedon Ranges and within easy commuting distance to Melbourne, is a prosperous country town which has managed to maintain its village character while attracting a steady stream of tree-changers (including this writer). It boasts a bounty of cafes, bistros, gourmet delis and butchers, wine bars, a couple of pubs (including a microbrewery), two excellent bookshops and all the organic fruit and vegetables you can eat.

And because it is such a prosperous little hub, Coles is already present in Woodend, although it sits unobtrusively in a newer group of shops at the end of the town’s high street (called High Street) without upsetting the local character.

Unfortunately, and typically, big companies like Coles have little interest in “local character”. Their only interest is profit, superseded only by the desire for more profit. So despite their pious claims of being good corporate citizens, they are nothing of the sort. At least when it comes to their own interests.

Coles sees much potential in Woodend and it is relocating to a new site off High Street, adjoining Woodend railway station, where it will build a larger supermarket. (The site was sold in 2013 by a property developer with a planning permit to develop a 2800sqm supermarket.)

The Macedon Ranges Shire Council has no objection to the new supermarket; it granted planning approval to the property developer in 2010.

What the council, and Woodend residents, object to is Coles’ plan to build a service station on High Street, in a highly visible area that is to all practical purposes the gateway to the village strip. An uglier, more intrusive carbuncle could not be imagined. (As coincidence would have it, the site is currently occupied by the dilapidated long-abandoned ‘Woodend Automotive’ garage; hardly attractive, but at least it has antiquity in its favour.)

‘We have a responsibility to the community’

In May, the council denied Coles Property Group a permit for a Coles Express service station, which would include a convenience store. The council made it plain to Coles that the issue was not the service station, but the proposed location.

Council and community objections highlighted traffic management concerns, pedestrian safety risks and damage to the town’s character.

At this point, one would hope and indeed expect that a good corporate citizen would seek to work hand in hand with the council and the community to strike a balance that can satisfy all parties. One would hope, and again expect, that Coles would be respectful of environment, community amenity and heritage values.

A compelling reason for such an expectation – quite apart from the perhaps naïve belief that corporations should do the right thing by the communities in which they operate and seek to operate – is that Coles expressly commits itself to such values:

“As one of Australia’s leading food retailers, we have a huge responsibility to our customers, the community and the environment. Our focus is simple, to continue to work towards a sustainable future while supporting Aussie farmers, food producers and the local community.”

However, far from respecting the wishes of the local community, Coles has lodged an appeal with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to overturn the council’s decision.

The council took some risk in standing up to Coles and denying it a permit to build the service station. If the appeal is upheld, Coles will be free to ignore compromises previously negotiated with council planners and revert to its original, larger scale plans.

It’s clear that Coles has no interest in compromise. It has dismissed local concerns and has placed its corporate concerns ahead of all else.

The council considers the proposed site an eyesore and a safety hazard, but Coles believes building the service station complex on such a prominent site will be good for business, hang its impact on village aesthetics.

Unlike the intransigent corporate bully, the council is open to compromise.

One of the most vocal objectors to the proposal Cr John Connor stated: “I have no problem with a second fuel outlet [in Woodend], just not this location.”

Resident and local businessman Zoltan Bexley told The Midland Express: “That corner is an eyesore. That’s not a reason to create another eyesore. What kind of community do we want to live in? Do we want another [urban-sprawl suburb like] Taylors Lakes?”

Coles bulldozer at the ready

The people of Woodend are entitled to live in a community environment of their choosing. They are entitled to insist on striking a balance between the character of their community and the commercial interests of Coles. Who is Coles to be saying all or nothing?

Coles is not – or at least should not be – entitled to bulldoze its way through the carefully and lovingly fashioned community fabric because it suits its growth targets and profit outlooks.

A community-conscious, values-based company, if it was true to its published ideals, would say: “Okay, we get the message loud and clear. We can build a service station, but not here. Let’s look at some alternate sites and see if we can make this happen.”

Instead, Coles has airily dismissed the concerns of locals and announced: “Get out of the way we’re coming through whether you like it or not.”

We can be sure that at least some of the senior executives at Coles and Wesfarmers overseeing the supermarket’s battle with Woodend have charming homes in expensive rural idylls. And it’s a safe assumption that they would not look kindly upon a corporate intruder erecting a service station, or perhaps a set of golden arches, at the entrance to their village of choice.

It is no wonder that there is such widespread disdain for and mistrust of the corporate sector.

Coles’ arrogance is symptomatic of an attitude which has alienated employees, consumers and the public at large from big business. People are sick of companies that say one thing and do another. They feel that the gulf between their values and the values of the corporate sector has never been wider.

Macedon Ranges Council deserves to be congratulated for standing up to Coles, and Coles should have the decency to accept the will of the people of Woodend and show some respect.

And if Coles is too stubborn, proud or pig-headed to locate its service station elsewhere, perhaps Wesfarmers Managing Director Richard Goyder might like to issue a “please explain”. Better still, he should visit Woodend, inspect the site, and see for himself why locals are so upset about this proposal and Coles’ refusal to take no for an answer.

If you do come down, Richard, I can recommend some excellent coffee shops.

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