Well done, Tesco! Your masterplan for total domination of the UK is complete. Last week, Harrogate – the only postcode in Britain not blessed with a full-sized emporium – finally caved in. After a protracted public battle, which started in 2004 when the retailer paid £3.5m for a site north of the town, the planning committee has finally given a revised scheme the thumbs-up. It still has to be approved by a full council meeting, and the health and safety executive can ask for a public inquiry, but deep down, in their heart of hearts, the middle-class residents of HG3 know the battle is all but over. Tesco has arrived. Harrogate will soon be just like everywhere else.
I've shopped in Harrogate for 30 years, since coming to live 15 miles away in Upper Nidderdale. I won't be shedding any tears over Tesco, though, as their victory represents just the latest stage in the blanding of a once elegant, distinctive 19th-century spa town. The story of Harrogate parallels the decline of the British high street, laid out in stark reality in a comprehensive report published last week.
On average, one in seven shops are currently empty, but in the worst places the rate is one in three. Up and down the land, town centres are abandoned, unwelcoming, dismal places. Once thriving seaside resorts like Blackpool have a quarter of all retail outlets boarded up. Not exactly a magnet for visitors.
This survey shows that Mary Portas, charged by the Government to come up with ideas to breathe life into high streets, faces an impossible task. She should resign and save her efforts – the high street has changed for good; and with few signs that the recession is receding, consumers have neither the will nor the cash to spend kick-starting any rejuvenation.
At the end of the day, Harrogate is a wealthy, middle-class place, with unemployment running at just 1.9 per cent against the national average of 9.1 per cent. The population grew by just 1,800 people in the past year. There's been an increase in drink and drug abuse, antisocial behaviour and bad driving, but nothing on the scale of most major cities. Harrogate isn't on the skids, but the town's character has really taken a knock. To be brutally honest, Harrogate is now no different from Winchester, Portsmouth, Bristol or Bath. Bland and boring, not worth a visit.
Harrogate once had a market building full of small traders, bang opposite the station. A wonderful Victorian grocery store stood on the next corner. Both vanished decades ago, in spite of vociferous campaigns to prevent their destruction. And where small traders once flourished we were given a shopping mall called Victoria Place, one of the ugliest buildings in Britain. The pedestrianised heart of Harrogate is packed with chain stores, including Marks & Spencer. There's a Waitrose by the station, an Asda by the conference centre, a huge Sainsbury's south of the town centre. With Tesco, supermarket shoppers have an abundance of choice, but the cost has been the individual retailers which made the place special.
The number of butchers and grocers and small businesses operating is small. They can't compete. The same has happened with cafés squeezed out by fast food and coffee chains. Now Harrogate has been "blessed" with a new all-day restaurant called Victus opposite the bus and train stations. The menu has nothing to do with Yorkshire, but features a melange of culinary styles from around the world: salmon with Nori rice and spicy pulled pork chilli "hot meal box", whatever that is, and a New York Sandwich.
The restaurant is backed by F1 driver Jenson Button, who turned up for the opening last week. The menu is made up of food he's enjoyed on his travels, and there are plans to roll out the formula as a chain. Victus sums up where dining out in our ailing town centres is heading, the same bland version of international cuisine. Jamie Oliver has already done this with his Italian diners. The future is famous faces selling their personal taste.
Sainsbury's has just opened its 400th Local store – and claims this is benefiting local high streets. But these stores aren't helping the small businesses they replace. We've killed off our town centres by rating convenience over everything else.
Indigestible hilarity at any Price
I recommend the new Katie Price magazine – a hilarious read, for just £3.99. Why wasn't this renaissance woman doing stand-up in Edinburgh?
Katie reveals lots we never knew about her, admitting to being addicted to junk food and "proper" tea. She doesn't specify whether she heats the pot and uses real leaves. Somehow I doubt it.
Katie shares her recipes (I use the word loosely) for a slap up Sunday lunch, including instruction on how to wash the "blood and stuff" off a leg of lamb. She mashes her spuds with "near enough" a tub of butter (no packets in this house). There's vegetable "smash" achieved by boiling up a load of carrots and swede and blending them with more butter and milk.
The finishing touches are tinned or frozen peas and sweetcorn, frozen Yorkshire puds, and readymade cauliflower cheese. Sounds like a meal for people with no teeth – maybe there's something else this diva hasn't told us.
At least Katie gets in the kitchen. Madonna told an interviewer last week she couldn't cook at all but loved bangers and mash, mushy peas and sticky toffee pudding. She must eat thimble-sized portions. Later, she backtracked claiming she can boil an egg and make a Rice Krispies treat. I think I'd rather dine chez Katie, thanks.
Teddies steal Perry's show
Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing ceramicist, is curating an exhibition of his work and historical treasures at the British Museum, from next month.
Pride of place will be given to Alan Measles, his legendary teddy bear, along with three other bears who have won the right to be displayed (in rotation) in a shrine on Grayson's motorbike. The museum ran a competition to find bears with interesting histories – the finalists included Fag Burn Blue and Dr Schmoo.
The BM's director, Neil MacGregor, won awards for his radio series History of the World in 100 Objects – surely these these plucky characters deserve the same treatment. Will they join the museum's permanent collection, to be displayed alongside the Elgin Marbles?
Use your brains: Avoid Google
Some female contestants on University Challenge are being abused by nasty people on-line.
Marie Debray, who represented Balliol College last year, has been subjected to sexist jokes and unflattering comments on social networking sites.
Other contestants have had their pictures posted next to pictures of male genitalia. Telly bosses have offered the women counselling and a help line to call, but surely the answer is not to Google your name, and the problem is solved.
Why look up rubbish about yourself online anyway? I am sure that these highly intelligent females have far more productive ways of spending their time. Most chatrooms, like Twitter, are the home of the socially challenged.