Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, has cemented his populist reputation by admitting he is “worried” about the spiraling presence of big name retailers on high streets across the country.
The fast-rising Labour MP for Streatham warns that the UK is “in danger of sleepwalking towards monostreet” because of the “saturation” of brands like Tesco and Sainsburys. In an interview with The Independent, he urges a “confused” nation to have a “national conversation about we want,” adding: “We're worried about high streets, yet we continue to shop in these big brand shops. We're complaining, but we haven't stopped and thought.”
He adds: “Tesco and Sainsburys and a lot of others are doing good things but equally people do worry about us reaching saturation point and the challenges that poses for the character of our high streets.”
“I don't think the balance is quite right,” he says, referring to the mix between multiples and independently run shops on most high street, admitting he is among those concerned. “I worry about it at the moment.”
Although Mr Umunna, who at 34 is a young-but-consummate politician with an eye on the main prize, is careful to stress that “some of the large stores are not the devil incarnate,” his views will prove controversial given how much groups like Tesco have done to drive down the cost of living.
Pointing to the 19 Sainsburys' stores in his own borough, Lambeth, he says: “There are only so many one community needs.” He is helping residents to campaign against a new Tesco Express on the site of a former pub in Brixton.
“Some take the view that Sainsbury, Tesco, and Asda are destroying our high street and are basically running after the bottom line at the expense of communities. I think that's overly simplistic but equally, to deny that there's not going to be an impact when those stores that have scale and power open all over the country would be naïve. How do you strike a balance?”
He would like to see planning rules changed so that local councilors have the power to take the diversity of high streets into account when deciding whether to let big chains open new outlets. Recent research by the Local Data Company, which tracks store vacancies, found that 14 per cent of all town centre shops are empty.
“We don't have to accept that the drift to decline is inevitable,” the MP said. He wants politicians to help equip shopkeepers with the right skills to cope with a new era; one where £78bn was spent online in 2012. He also thinks local authorities should stop using “parking enforcement as a cash cow”.
Mr Umunna, who is tipped by some as the next Labour leader, is fronting a campaign to support independent retailers by calling on shoppers to put their hand in their wallets next Thursday and buy at least one thing from one of their local shops. Independents' Day, which is in its third year, is timed to coincide with US Independence Day. “Small businesses make a massive contribution to the economy but I don't think that is really recognized… They don't figure in a British dream in a way that their US counterparts feature in the American Dream. I think we have to do more to promote them.”
He intends to build on next week's event with something called Small Business Saturday, a similarly minded American initiative that urges people to shop locally on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, the first Saturday in December. The notion is well backed in the US, with even Barack Obama doing his bit last year by visiting an independent bookstore.
Mr Umunna, who was controversially called the “UK's Barack Obama” on his own Wikipedia page, told the Independent that he was a regular feature on his own high street in Streatham, which runs either side of the A23, one of the main thoroughfares out of London. But a trip there suggested that he limited his patronage to the more exclusive outlets, such as newcomer Boyce da Roca, a café serving the likes of sour dough toasted sandwiches and flat white coffees. Hugo Roca, its co-owner, said the MP was a frequent weekend customer. “He said we were the 'new face of Streatham',” Mr Roca said.
When pressed on where he shopped for food, Mr Umunna missed a trick by admitting he used the Co-op or Tesco Express. Yet just the other side of the road is a thriving local grocer called Daily Fresh Food, which lures shoppers such as Harvey Pettit, 63, who comes from Clapham because “the quality of the fruit and vegetables is always very good”.
A straw poll of shoppers and shopkeepers unearthed views that ranged from mixed to very negative. Trevor Nelson, 25, said his employer, Balfe's Bikes, was proof that the right shop in the right place could prosper. “We're the first bike shop for anyone commuting in from Croydon,” he said. But further down the road, past umpteen pawnbrokers, betting shops, numerous cafes, bars, and at least three Polish delis, business was far less brisk for others. An attempt to talk to the owner of the menswear retailer Geffen failed because he was fast asleep. And in Rogers, a curtain shop, one shopkeeper, who did not want to be named, said: “There's no passing trade. There's nothing to bring people here because there are no decent shops. You can eat; you can drink yourself silly, but that's it.”
Common complaints ranged from the lack of car parking to the high cost of rents and business rates. Nasar Mehmood Raja, who owns Krystal Cleaners, said the killer for him was the introduction of double red lines about five years ago. He also revealed that despite paying £5,400 a year in rates, he had just received a demand from Lambeth Council giving him one week to pay a £180 Business Improvement District (BID) Levy, which he knew nothing about. I hadn't the heart to tell him that BIDs were popular with none other than his own MP, Mr Umunna.