YORK and North Yorkshire are being targeted as areas ripe for a shopping expansion by United Co-operatives.

Already the region has seen clear evidence this month of the spending of a £100 million "war chest" for acquisitions and refurbishments.

A village Co-op in Ryedale Court, Haxby, York, has just reopened after a £400,000 makeover, and Saturday saw the opening of a new £250,000 Co-op store in Poppleton.

"There's more to come," promised Mark Craig, spokesman for United Co-operatives. "But it has to be right. We are looking for convenience stores and medium-sized supermarkets in York and North Yorkshire. We are not in the superstore arena. We do what we do best. We were the first retailers to realise the growing importance of the convenience store sector. All the activity by Tesco and Sainsbury trying to buy convenience stores is interesting, but we are six or seven years ahead of the game."

The expansion of Co-op stores, particularly food outlets, has not caused so much excitement in the Co-op movement since it was founded by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. They banded together to counter their distrust of grocers who used plaster-of-Paris in flour and sand in sugar to boost profits.

By the end of the 19th century there were 1,400 Co-op stores in which members had one vote irrespective of the size of their contribution, but in return were rewarded with low prices, discount vouchers, and the peace of mind that they were serving sometimes distant areas of the community, particularly in rural areas. That success continued in spite of two World Wars, but in the past 30 years the co-operative movement was slowed down, first by the now-abolished Retail Price Maintenance, which allowed manufacturers to fix price tags in the shops, then by the growth of supermarkets and out-of-town superstores.

The flurry of spending follows the merger in September 2002 of United Co-operatives Norwest and Yorkshire Co-operatives, two of the largest, most successful Co-op groups in Britain. It was not a merger of weakness, but of great strength, with ten years of growing turnover and profits.

Under their combined United Co-operatives banner, 940 stores now serve three million customers from North Wales through the north-west and into Yorkshire.

Last year, as the merger consolidated, £40 million capital expenditure was set aside - relatively low compared to combined programmes in years past. But this year, with profits to January 2004 up by 38 per cent to £35.5 million, came the massive expansion plans.

But as the big supermarket chains seek to open more corner stores, is there not a danger of competition?

"Not really," said Mr Craig. "We tend to concentrate on community areas rather than town centres - a 'people first' policy that others would find uneconomical."

United Co-operatives consists of six trading groups, the largest of which is sale of food. The others are travel agencies, car dealerships, pharmacies, department stores and funeral specialists.

Updated: 11:34 Monday, June 14, 2004