Tesco CEO Terry Leahy used yesterday’s CBI conference in Birmingham as a forum to vent his frustration over the firm’s four-year struggle to open a supermarket in a south London borough.

“I know Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he told delegates: “But why does it take four years to get a positive decision for one, moderately-sized, inner-city store?”

Leahy detailed the battles between Britain’s largest supermarket group and local councillors in Lambeth, the planning delays, public enquiries and environmental protests that have dogged the proposed £30m (US$43.9m) development since 1997.

Tesco argues that its original plans for the site (a former women’s hospital next to Clapham Common) were “community-friendly”, comprising of a mixed development; a 25,000ft² supermarket and including space for 104 homes and a doctor’s surgery.

But after four years, two planning inquiries and spending “millions of pounds” to accommodate objections, Tesco is still waiting for a decision.

The application was originally backed by Lambeth planning officers, but the full local council raised objections on conservation grounds. After Tesco appealed, a public inquiry in February 1998 saw the planning inspector support the council.

So Tesco submitted a fresh application in April 1999, re-jigging its proposals in line with the planning inspector’s suggestion that the company preserve the building’s facade. This package was given the go ahead by both sides in August, only to be rejected by deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who ordered another public inquiry in October. This inquiry was held over two stages in April and July last year.

Since then, says Leahy, there has been an “ominous silence” on the part of the government.

A spokesman from transport minister Stephen Byers’s department told the Daily Telegraph: “I can’t give you any guidance on this one.”