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?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
John Terry puts Chelsea ahead
football
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David performs in his play ‘Fish in the Dark'
theatreFish in the Dark has already generated a record $14.5m in advance ticket sales
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tvReview: Too often The Casual Vacancy resembled a jumble of deleted scenes from Hot Fuzz
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
news
Arts and Entertainment
Jemima West in Channel 4's Indian Summers (Joss Barratt/Channel 4)
tvReview: More questions and plot twists keep viewers guessing
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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003