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Don’t moan about supermarkets

2011 August 7
by Paul Vallely

My greengrocer was selling “local” Victoria plums this week. How local is local I asked her. She named a road about half a mile away. We all like the idea of that kind of shopping. We trust the provenance of the goods. We know no fuel is being wasted transporting goods across vast useless miles. We feel good because local producers benefit and the local economy is stimulated. When pollsters ask us if we want more independent local shops 80 per cent of us say Yes. So why do we buy 97 per cent of our food from supermarkets?

Some 12,000 of the independent local shops we profess to love shut down in 2009 as the global financial crisis hit our high streets. Last year another 2,000 went. Today one in seven shops in town centres across the country stand empty like pulled teeth in the rotten mouth that is British high street shopping. Some areas have tried to counter the appearance of dereliction by plastering huge photographs in shop windows to give the impression they are still in use.

There are some who refuse to lament the change. Sally Bercow, the never-knowingly-underdressed wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, last week announced cheerily that we have ceased to be a nation of shopkeepers and become one of online bargain hunters. The High Street is approaching its sell-by date, and a good thing too, she reckoned. Town centre retailers need to wake up, smell the coffee and accept that Starbucks will take over in the vacant shops.

Isn’t this just embracing the inevitable? No, it is letting slip something which we will rue. I do two kinds of shopping. Once a fortnight I go to a supermarket and pile baked beans and toilet rolls into a trolley. But the rest of the time I visit my local parade of shops which has two butchers, two chemists, two green-grocers and two bakers, as well as a post office, hardware store and a florist.

The supermarket I often negotiate in total silence; thanks to the self-service scanners there’s no need even to speak to the woman on the checkout. At the shops, by contrast, I meet all kinds of people, and talk to them in queues or across counters. It’s where I was recommended our plumber, get cooking tips, hear the latest Manchester United transfer rumours, read notices about concerts in the park, discover why parents think standards are falling at the local school, and pick up the prescription which the chemist has collected from the doctor for me. The shops are the nexus of the knowledge, respect, trust and mutuality which bind the community in which I live.

Supermarkets are cheap and efficient. They stabilise quality and increase choice. They have transformed shopping even since my mother’s day. But this has come at a cost. Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons account for more than three-quarters of all the foods we buy. They also grabbed almost 90 per cent of all new shop space given planning approval last year.

The counterpoint to this has been the drastic decline of neighbourhood shops. We have reached a tipping point where the increased expansion of supermarkets will do more harm than good.

Serious change is needed. But it is no good looking to existing planning regimes to restore some balance. Local planning departments, now facing swinging government cuts, are no match for the mighty supermarket industry.  Routinely supermarkets exceed the limits or flout conditions laid down by councils once permission has been granted and building or trading is underway. Retailers provide inaccurate and misleading data to planners. They offer sweeteners, like community centres or sport facilities, to gain advantages over their rivals. And planners fear they will incur huge costs if they constantly challenge supermarkets in the courts.

Then there are the dirty tricks. They wrap land in legal covenants to prevent rivals building.  They use front companies to buy sites so that sellers do not inflate prices and local people do not raise objections. In Renfrewshire Tesco used a local property company to buy a shopping centre and over six years allowed it to fall into near dereliction so that when Tesco announced a building plan it was greeted “like a knight in shining armour” – until the ruse was uncovered.

Councils, who ought to be in control of this growth, directing it to where it will bring most benefit, seem bewildered by it. Lack of joined-up thinking even makes things worse. Parking planners routinely fail to see the economic consequences of slapping double yellow lines outside small shops and giving a superstore planning permission for a huge car park down the road.

Yet the toll all this is taking is clear enough. Since Woolworths went bust in 2008 a catalogue of household names have followed: Borders, TJ Hughes, Thorntons, Habitat, MFI, Zavvi, Whittard, Oddbins and on it goes. And that is not to mention the independent neighbourhood shops. In 2008 six per cent of shops stood vacant; last year the figure had risen to 15 per cent. David Cameron is so concerned that he has appointed a tv star as shopping tsar; Mary Portas, the Queen of Shops, has been asked to chair an independent review into the British high street.

Don’t get your hopes up. For all the blether about “localism” the prospects of a Supermarket Ombudsman to end supermarkets’ bully boy tactics, which both Tories and Lib Dems supported before the election, appears to be receding. What was supposed to be an “enforcer” is now to be an “adjudicator” and even this neutered option has been put on the back-burner for two years. And don’t look to Labour, which earlier this year helped defeat a Scottish Nationalist proposal to impose a “supermarket tax” on retail premises worth £750,000 or more.

Protest seems the way forward. By which I don’t mean burning down the new local Tesco, as squatters attempted in Bristol in May, but rather more genteel campaigns like the one led by Lady Caroline Cranbrook which saw off a new Tesco in the Suffolk town of Saxmundham this month. Or the move by Abdul Arain, a small  shopkeeper, who is standing against Lord Sainsbury to become chancellor of Cambridge University.

It is odds that need stacking now rather than shelves. That means learning all the jargon about diversity of retail mix, and suchlike, to do battle with both planners and retailers. It means balancing the figures for jobs created by superstores against those they destroy. It means demanding that councils incorporate into their Local Development Frameworks enhanced powers to protect retail competitiveness.

We are not just consumers but citizens who live in community. So we must not give in to what the American ecologist Garrett Hardin called “the tragedy of the commons”.  Herders grazing their cows on a public meadow thought they were acting in rational self-interest by piling on as many animals as possible. But their myopia, he showed, ultimately depleted the shared resource on which they all depended. Shops are more than places to buy things. They are part of who and how we are. It is not enough to simply use them. We need to fight for them.

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