Fury and disbelief greets report's claim that Britain needs more supermarkets

For Charles Leakey, owner of Leakey's Bookshop in Inverness, the Competition Commission's suggestion that Britain needs yet more supermarkets was as unwelcome as it was perverse. "It is an absurd piece of news. I have been amazed all day at it," he said last night.

In the capital of the Scottish Highlands, it is estimated that more than 50p in every pound spent by the city's 66,000 shoppers ends up in the tills of one of three local Tesco stores.

Yesterday, the commission published preliminary findings of its third report in seven years into Britain's grocery sector, which is dominated by four big chains – Tesco being by far the largest. Watchdogs concluded that the current situation offered shoppers unprecedented value, choice and convenience, and denied that Tesco enjoyed an unfair advantage because of its size. The commission even recommended making it easier for the retail giants to open more stores to promote competition between them – a suggestion which infuriated campaigners against the growing might of supermarkets.

The stranglehold that our biggest supermarket chain exerts over Inverness has led to it being called Britain's premier "Tesco town". Perhaps to the delight of the commission, new competition is in the pipeline; Asda plans to open a superstore covering 70,000 square feet. Mr Leakey and other small shop owners have watched powerlessly, and with dwindling profits, as the big chains advance into their territory. "The centre of town has been eviscerated from a commercial point of view," he said. "The heart has been torn out and most of our customers relocated to the big superstores. Before the supermarkets arrived it was a thriving, socially cohesive and a great place to be."

Campaigners such as Mr Leakey greeted the commission's report with fury and ridicule. They believe the head of the inquiry, Peter Freeman, has issued recommendations which will drive another nail through the heart of the Britain's high streets. After studying the retail sector for 18 months, Mr Freeman concluded that families would get an even better deal if planning laws were overhauled, allowing rival supermarket chains to compete in towns dominated by a single retailer.

While warning that the big four had frustrated competition by buying up potential sites to deny them to rivals – a practice known as "land banking" – he said he did "not see evidence of unfair distortions in competition between large grocery retailers and small stores".

Mr Freeman added: "Having looked at local grocery markets, in most areas shoppers have a good choice and benefit from the strong competition such as value, choice, innovation and convenience. On most counts the groceries market delivers just that." The British Retail Consortium described the inquiry as "costly and time consuming" and said it hoped it would be the "last for a long time". Other critics said Mr Freeman had focused too much on a narrow definition of competition, based on the drive for ever-cheaper food.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England said the report showed "a depressing failure to care about the interests of local communities, which threatens to consign England's towns to more monotony". Tom Oliver, its head of rural policy, added: "We are offered a bleak prospect of yet more ruthless price wars which undermine farmers' livelihoods and yet more land-hungry superstores in sprawling, car-dependent suburbs."

The Federation of Small Businesses, meanwhile, said the commission had let the public down. "Small retailers and suppliers are being squeezed out because of practices such as selling items below the cost of production, bullying suppliers and increased parking fees in high street compared to free parking at supermarkets," said its spokesman, Matthew Knowles.

Andrew Simms, of the New Economics Foundation think-tank, said Mr Freeman's findings were a "travesty". "It is so bad it is almost comic," he added. "Supermarket dominance is like a Chinese finger-trap and the commission is pushing us into a situation from which it will be increasingly hard to escape.

"By recommending the easing of planning conditions in favour of supermarkets, the commission is about as out of touch with reality as a person who believes Richard Branson needs more publicity."

Friends of the Earth, one of the groups which called for an inquiry by the Competition Commission in the first place, said: "Today's report is a totally inadequate response to the growing power of the big four supermarkets. The commission acknowledges that supermarkets bully suppliers and reduce consumer choice, but then bizarrely recommends making it easier for them to expand."

Mr Freeman's report calls for the introduction of a "competition" test to the planning system to replace the current "needs" test, which gauges whether there is enough demand in an area to justify opening a supermarket. The new test would encourage planners to look more favourably on retailers which did not have stores nearby.

But that offers little hope to traders such as Mr Leakey. "What we want is to get local, independent shops going again. That's what people really want," he says. "Luckily for me, supermarkets aren't interested in dealing in second-hand books but, if they could make a profit from it, they would."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Reach Volunteering: Volunteer Trustee with Healthcare expertise

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Reach Volunteering: Volunteer Trustee with Management, Communications and Fundraising

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Day In a Page

Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

A Different League

Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce on Boxing

Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf