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
  • Get to the point
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: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece