Editor-At-Large: An army of choosy shoppers could see off greedy retailers

Voters care about life on their own doorsteps – the election results show that – and nothing beats the glow of buying locally
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The election results of the past week confirm that anything tagged with the word local is guaranteed to get a powerful response. Voters turned out in their thousands to register their discontent with the Government, not about international issues such as Afghanistan or Iraq, global warming or the candidates for the US presidency, but over how issues far closer to home are being handled. Frankly, we care more about whether wheelie bins are collected weekly or fortnightly and how much a parking permit costs than if child poverty targets are being met and whether we're building enough new homes. There's a sense that when the going gets tough – with rising mortgage, fuel and food costs – it's time to batten down the hatches and focus on a more personal agenda. Sure, many voters were concerned about the 10p tax rate being cut, but the vast majority were driven by local issues.

As concerns about global warming spawn a tidal wave of greenwash – phoney claims by retailers about how they are meeting environmentally issues – we're being encouraged to shop locally, reducing air miles and carbon emissions. It's a way of supporting small businesses, halting the decline of the high street and the closure of specialist shops. Going local has become the mantra of the moment, and a whole range of interests is now jumping on the bandwagon, anxious to profit from our new green agenda.

Last week, a BBC enquiry found that, when scientists tested meat listed on the menu as being "local" at 40 pubs and restaurants in South East England, they discovered that a whopping 20 per cent came from South America and Africa, and wasn't even British. Sadly, loopholes in current legislation allow food producers to repackage frozen meat imported from all over the place, turning it into pies and burgers, and then label it as if it comes from animals grazing on lovely fields down the road. We gullible consumers will always want to buy into the myth that local means best.

Nothing will give me a more gorgeous glow this weekend, a greater sense of superiority and better citizenship, than being able to boast that I've done all my shopping "locally", preferably in a farmers' market, using eco-acceptable cloth bags for organic knobbly carrots covered in mud and grown within 10 miles. The purchase of a free- range chicken, a chunk of local cheese and some locally foraged wild garlic, and I've almost achieved eco-sainthood. It beats queuing in a massive traffic jam to enter Ikea or a soulless mall such as Bluewater.

Now, even supermarkets are getting in on the act to claim they are in touch with "local" needs. Waitrose has announced plans to open more than 100 convenience stores in market towns all over the country, claiming that over half the produce on sale will be fresh fruit and vegetables, much of it sourced from local farms and suppliers.

Call me a cynic, but I cannot see how a "convenience" store- which is, after all, a small supermarket, will do anything significant to help a local fruit or vegetable farmer. In Whitstable, for example, the high street has several excellent greengrocers – the town sits right on the edge of the Kentish Weald where acre after acre is filled with strawberries, potatoes and asparagus. High Street has a couple of butchers as well as convenience stores owned by Somerfield and the Co-op, and on the outskirts of town sit the retail giants of Sainsbury and Tesco. This is a mix repeated all over the country – if we truly want to shop locally, the opportunity already exists, with weekly farmers' markets and traditional local markets thriving as well. In towns such as Totnes in Devon, they've taken the idea one stage further and printed their own currency, the Totnes pound, which allows residents to support the 70 local businesses that accept it. Other small towns are experimenting with a system of bartering for goods and services, eliminating the need for money altogether.

The truth is, supermarket chains are not the slightest bit interested in helping local food suppliers – their expansion will undoubtedly see the closure of more small fruit and vegetable shops up and down the country.

When big retailers claim to be in touch with local issues, you know it's just another marketing ploy. What they really seek is higher profits and domination of the high street.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

Marina must be itching for her own life again

During the bitter battle for Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was forced to unveil his secret weapon, his wife Marina. Glamorous, brainy (a barrister), and the mother of his four children, she has always stayed firmly in the background throughout her husband's many skirmishes with the media. She was nowhere to be seen when his affair with Petronella Wyatt led to his sacking from the Shadow front bench. Clearly, those advising Boris thought that her well-groomed presence would play well in the suburbs, where the Tory candidate decided to focus most of his efforts. Neither Brian Paddick or Ken Livingstone used their partners for photo-opportunities, indeed both men have kept their private lives exactly that. Does having a highly visible partner at your side when you're electioneering send out a hidden message to voters? Hillary hasn't flinched from using Chelsea and Bill in her presidential campaign, and Obama's wife is regularly in the spotlight. Now Boris has succeeded she'll be hoping he does the job and leaves her in peace.

Charles is turning Britain into a royal theme park

Prince Charles might drive an Aston Martin, cruise the Caribbean in a private yacht and maintain an army of flunkies, but he never misses an opportunity to tell us about his eco-credentials. He's always banging on about architecture, whingeing about anything that looks even remotely contemporary – he'd be happiest if Britain was a neo-Georgian theme park and everyone knew their place in the social pecking order. He adds nothing to the debate about house building – the problem is that we are building thousands of new homes which are versions of an outdated model, the 1920s semi.

These days, families aren't two parents and two kids who need a little garden and a garage: they come in all kinds of combinations. His first new town, Poundbury in Dorset, is as twee and fake as those Florida towns parodied in The Truman Show. Now he has planning permission for Sherford, an eco-town for 12,000 in Devon, to be built in a pseudo-Georgian style with a cricket pitch and bowling green.

I'm sure that it ticks all the right boxes with the housing minister, Caroline Flint, using wind turbines, low energy light bulbs, locally-sourced construction materials and solar power systems, but the fact remains that this is a visual eyesore, incorporating modern environmental concerns and the latest eco-technology on to a Disney-like high street of little boxes. OK, they've got a 400-acre park – but where are the buildings that make a town unique, the clock towers, eccentric libraries and town halls? Prince Charles and his sycophantic architectural advisors make my blood boil with their patronising vision.

Comments