BREADLINE BRITAIN: Poor left crumbs as big stores quit

Food fears: Urban estates fight to retain supermarkets searching for richer pickings
Click to follow
THIS WEEK Tesco unveiled its showpiece supermarket in Kensington, west London. Inside the frontage of glass and gleaming steel, Sir Terence Conran wandered among the sushi and espresso bars, the antipasto and olive counters, checking out the ready-made meals of seafood paella, teriyaki beef and tagliatelle.

Four hundred miles away, on the bleak Wester Hailes estate in Edinburgh, another chain, Safeway, has been before the courts to oppose a legal action backed by residents to stop it pulling out of the area. A smaller local Tesco may, it is feared, attempt to do so in the future.

The tale of two cities and two communities, one rich, one poor, illustrated a warning by Sir Donald Acheson, the Government's former chief medical officer, that it is almost impossible for many of the poorest to get cheap and varied food, because local shops are shutting, while supermarkets move out of town. This has led to increasing problems of nutrition, especially among children.

His report on reducing health inequalities, published next month, comes after a study by the Government's social exclusion unit, which found, in a survey of 20 council estates in poor areas, that none had a supermarket or range of shops.

In 1986-96 food superstores rose from 432 to 1,034 and 50,000 small grocers closed. Research released last month showed that sales in traditional market-town convenience stores fall by 13-50 per cent when an out-of-town supermarket opens. The big chains - Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway - made pounds 2bn profit in 1996-97. They have more than 1,670 stores.

Wester Hailes has 11,000 people, with most incomes below average and most people on benefits. Half the residents are under 25 and there are many single mothers; few people have cars. Safeway wanted to close its Presto store because it was making a loss. It was so keen to close it was willing to continue paying pounds 150,000 a year to the landlords, Highland and Universal, until the lease expired in 2009. Closure would have left people with no choice but to trek to a centre two miles away on an infrequent bus service.

Wester Hailes Representative Council and Edinburgh City Council got together with Highland and Universal to challenge Safeway. Judge Lord Penrose, at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, ordered it to keep the store open. He said: "It is hardly conceivable that Safeway would be entitled to walk away from their contractual obligations because they no longer found their neighbours congenial." It was also ordered, in another hearing, to keep the store fully stocked.

Tesco, which has a small branch at the edge of the Wester Hailes estate, has won planning permission for a superstore in an adjacent suburb, Colinton, and locals fear their store will be closed.

A councillor, Susan Dalgety, who campaigned to keep the Safeway branch open, said: "Safeway moving out would have led to tremendous problems for people in the area ... We are now watching to see what happens with Tesco. They ... say they cannot make any comments for reasons of commercial consideration."

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, said the past 20 years had seen "hypermarketisation" of superstores as they got bigger, leaving smaller stores unable to compete. "The supermarkets have abandoned the poor. They have ... chased the affluent consumer. The result is a ruthless cycle."

A Safeway spokesman said that of 175 stores it opened in the past decade, a third were in town centres and most of the 56 closures in the past three years had been small stores. "That was what the customers wanted: one- stop shopping. You cannot get the same access or car-park facilities in town stores." Retailers were not willing to go back into poor areas. "If the Government can sort out the problems then the retailers will follow. But we're not going to do it alone. It would be a recipe for disillusionment ...

"We have abandoned these areas ... because of ... crime and vandalism."

A Tesco spokesman said that of its 600 stores, 200 were in the high street. It had stores on housing estates and spent pounds 3m a year on free bus services. According to Verdict Research, the company made pounds 760m profit in 1996-97. The spokesman said it was "absolute nonsense" that supermarkets were aiming at the more affluent in society. Asked whether Tesco had consciously moved away from a downmarket image to a more upmarket one, he said: "The company was looking for a way to improve itself but we are a company which attracts everybody."