The fight against Tesco, Sainsbury and Safeway in Stroud could mark a turning point for these land-gobbling, car-oriented, village barn-style purveyors of ugli fruit, kumquats and Kenyan beans. The citizens of Stroud take on the financial might of these professional retail empires at a series of public inquiries this autumn; if the people win, the concept of the edge-of- town superstore might be placed in the scales and found wanting.
Over the past decade, the big food chains have raced to build edge-of- town supermarkets the length and breadth of Britain. From Inverness to Penzance, they look much the same. Architects show little or no respect for local topography, building materials or architectural styles. Each boasts a vast open-air car park; each offers a mind-boggling choice of foodstuffs, sourced from all over the world and delivered by multi-axled, turbo- charged lorries. Tesco's redevelopment of the Art Deco Hoover factory at Perivale in west London into a superstore is one of the few redeeming buildings of this type.
Most cause small traders in the towns they squat beside to lose or go out of business. At certain times of the year a superstore can turn over more than pounds 1m a day. Running out of large towns to conquer, they have set their corporate sights on small towns - particularly those, like Stroud, surrounded by wealthy catchment areas.
Stroud has a population of about 35,000, Stroud District about 100,000. The town is a down-at-heel, higgledy- piggledy patchwork of engineering workshops, redundant cloth mills, mini-roundabouts and traffic-clogged streets. It smells of exhaust fumes.
It is remarkable, though, for being a Cotswold town that has not been turned into a cutesy-pie tourist attraction. Most of its shops are independent. Their customers do not wear silk headscarves and green wellies. The streets are not lined with Range Rovers. Instead, there are a lot of hippies and grunge kids, New Age travellers, scruffy dogs and after-hours cider louts. Stroud is not smart; it is an old- fashioned town without pretension. It wants to stay forever Stroud.
It will not, however, survive the onslaught of the superstores. A Tesco opened here in 1990, a Waitrose is under construction. A third, fourth and even fifth superstore will bring the town centre to its knees. And as engineering workshops try to sell their land to the chain stores, local labour will become de-skilled. Tool-makers, welders and other artisans will be put out to grass, stacking shelves and retrieving shopping trollies.
For local people, there will be no escape from the superstores even when walking the dog. From the lovely commons that still surround Stroud and overlook the seven valleys that feed into it, one can see all too clearly how the next generation of superstores will dominate otherwise unspoilt Gloucestershire countryside. Imagine the glare from the windscreens of hundreds of parked cars. Imagine the visual onslaught of those idiotic buildings with their Gormenghast roofs, garish fancy brickwork, twee towers and Toy Town gables debasing the landscape and the architecture of the town.
'Twenty per cent of Stroud's shops are empty, which is well above the national average of 12 per cent,' says Bruce Buchanan, an architect and town planner who is fighting the superstores on behalf of Stroud Town Council, Stroud Civic Society, the Stroud, Nailsworth and Stonehouse Chambers of Trade and Commerce and the recently formed Stroud Area Revitalisation group. 'This figure will rise if a third superstore is granted planning permission. Given that the largest Waitrose in the country is about to open here, it would be best to wait for three years to see what effect that has on Stroud before considering further superstores.'
A survey carried out for the anti- superstore campaign shows that 68 per cent of local people are against having even one more superstore. 'The trouble at the moment,' Mr Buchanan adds, 'is that retailing is the one profitable area remaining for property developers, and so the pressure is on to transform farmland and old factories into shops. This is short- term thinking. It might give shoppers a wider choice of apples and mineral waters, but it won't do Stroud any good in 20 years' time.'
'It's hard for us to tackle the big stores,' says John Davis, an optician and president of Stroud Chamber of Trade. 'They have considerable experience in winning appeals for planning permission. They employ expensive QCs to fight their case and so they're hard to beat. They only expect to win one appeal in five at best. We can't afford the fees to play this kind of cat-and-mouse game. We're having to fight a guerrilla war against them to save Stroud.
'Since Tesco opened, we've lost 30 businesses out of 275, including three butchers, two bakers, two petrol stations and a hardware store. Tesco might as well be 20 miles away; the only thing it's given back to the town is pounds 25 for the high street decorations last Christmas.'
Mr Davis would like to have a Marks & Spencer in Stroud, 'because they work with local business and they build in town centres. Waitrose is working quite closely with us, but that won't be true of the edge-of-town giants.'
'We can't fight the superstores on the grounds of whether or not they are necessary, nor even on the question of aesthetics,' says Mike Musten, development control manager of Stroud District Council. 'We have to be able to convince the inspector at the public inquiry that further superstores on the edge of Stroud would be positively harmful, that they would damage an area of outstanding natural beauty, for example, or that they would have a deleterious effect on the town centre. It is very difficult, because of government policy, for us to have any real effect on the design of superstores - which is why they look much the same everywhere.'
'We're facing an American-style future of faceless malls,' says Mr Davis. 'These places are economic black- holes on our doorstep. And, more than that, they are sterile from an architectural point of view. If we keep allowing them, Britain will look and feel increasingly narrow and uniform.'
The nation's superstores will be redundant in a matter of years, much like the colossal deep-plan office blocks that squashed the face of British city centres in the late Eighties. As the population of Britain ages, edge- of-town stores will make less sense. An older population is less likely to drive, and even less likely to eat on the scale these machines-for-consuming encourage. The mammoth stores will become museum pieces. We will not be fond of them: it is unlikely that more than one will be listed as a building of architectural interest.
The successful superstore of the 21st century will weave its way back into town centres and learn to support rather than threaten local business. If superstores want to make friends with the towns they purport to serve, they might begin doing this now rather than later - when their novelty has worn off and their architectural and ecological impact has been understood by a nation still mesmerised by so much food so professionally sold.
No one knows what will happen to Stroud. The government inspector has the future of the town, and to an extent the future of the edge-of-town superstore, in her hands. She might choose to give planning permission to all three sites under consideration on the edge of the town. Or she might refuse all three.
If the town does win a breathing space, it will need to work hard to improve itself. Stroud has been served particularly badly by architects, developers and local councillors over the past 25 years. Its centre boasts some of the poorest examples of every third- rate style of modern architecture.
'Given the chance, we just want to be an ordinary town,' says Mr Davis. 'We don't want to do any theming - we're not interested in becoming the corn-dolly centre of the Cotswolds or anything like that. We just want Stroud to be Stroud and not anywhere and everywhere else. We're really going to fight to stop ourselves being flattened and then eaten up by those retail dinosaurs.'
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