Brave new world or corporate toytown? Residents of east London have watched as large swathes of the area have been torn down to accommodate the 2012 Olympics. While the prospect of new, world-class sporting facilities in a run-down and under-developed part of the city is an exciting one, we ought to be concerned about other aspects of this huge chunk of urban regeneration. Local people have lost their cherished allotments, small shops have been closed, and a whole range of family-run businesses forced to relocate. Run-down Georgian and Victorian property (which could have been restored to add a blend of architectural styles to the urban landscape) has been compulsorily purchased as developers rip down existing buildings to replace them with brand new housing. The things that residents want – independent shopkeepers, markets, libraries, theatres and playgrounds – are taking second place.
It's the new landowners who are calling the shots. At the centre of the controversy is a new Tesco "town", slap bang next to the Olympics site, the focal point of which is a massive open-24-hours hypermarket. Tesco may retain the freehold of the 460 homes on the site, and will most definitely have a say in which shops are allowed to open on the 18-shop "high street". There is to be a 90-bed budget hotel (although I am not sure who will be using it after the Olympics), and a new primary school right next to the superstore. Once again, Tesco is expected to retain the freehold of the land.
Following a two-day consultation with the public, Tesco is applying to the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation for planning permission for its project, and is likely to get the go-ahead. It has another large development project in west London, dubbed Tesco Tower, at 100 West Cromwell Road. The retailer is nothing if not persistent. Previous plans have been rejected by Kensington and Chelsea, and after eight years and many different architects, Tesco is now hopeful of achieving its dream of building a massive store, a health centre and housing on the site. Now it claims it will include a "town square", a café and a market.
I use quote marks around the words "town square", because it's perfectly plain that what Tesco call urban regeneration, I call a commercial monopoly. Put simply, when Tesco owns land and wants to redevelop it, it is not going to create anything like the towns and villages we have all grown up with and which are part of our cultural heritage.
Until the superstores sucked all the life out of our high streets, they were a mixture of small businesses and chains, old and new buildings, a patchwork quilt of retailers, some efficient, some ramshackle, all existing to serve the myriad requirements of the public. Alarm bells ring when I see schools being built right next to supermarkets, and health centres and surgeries inside Tesco's shops. Soon, if Sir Terry Leahy has his way, we will be able to service our every need from the cradle to the grave, without moving more than 100 yards from a Tesco, or a Tesco-owned subsidiary.
It emerged last week that Tesco spent a whopping £1.4m in legal fees failing to block the Competition Commission from imposing new rules about where stores can be sited. Now planners have to ensure there is a sufficient variety of supermarkets in an area before giving the go-ahead to any new ones. Tesco has a supermarket in every postcode in the UK and Scotland, except Harrogate – although it has now opened a Tesco Express there. Its application for a superstore in Harrogate is currently under consideration by the local council, and feelings are running high: the local newspaper's poll is running 56 per cent against and 44 per cent in favour.
The Government got into bed with supermarkets long ago, allowing them to have a say in how the ludicrous subject of "food technology" was taught in schools. This had nothing to do with cooking, nutrition and learning real life skills, but was a way to turn bright kids into supermarket sales assistants. Luckily it is now being phased out and – guess what? – cookery is being reintroduced.
When Sir Terry Leahy moans about the education system failing businesses like his, I am not too bothered. For my money, the links between commerce and education are highly dubious. And Tesco town is even more banal than HRH's Poundbury.
Lady luck: So how does mere fame equip you for the House of Lords?
When I recorded a telly quiz show, Food Fight, with her recently, Kirstie Allsopp was good fun. But why should an attractive television presenter be entitled to a vote in the Lords? Kirstie, a former estate agent, is highly entertaining on Channel 4's Location, Location, Location, and is said to have advised David Cameron on housing policy. Now her name is on a list of high profile business and media figures Mr Cameron is said to be considering offering a peerage after the next election. That is about as ridiculous as asking me to pop on the ermine and sign up for those generous daily allowances. I loathe the idea that famous people have something worthwhile to contribute to British democracy, when all they are really interested in is furthering their own brand. Kirstie says she is a "working mum who talks to hundreds of people across the country". Actually, she's posh, and leads a highly cosseted life as a well-paid television presenter, meeting carefully pre-selected interviewees – and that certainly doesn't give you a grip on the problems faced by ordinary members of the public. If David Cameron wants to be really radical, he could start by dumping the idea of a government of "many talents", i.e. using people who haven't got the commitment to stand for election – people such as Sir Digby Jones and Lord Sugar, who are on your team one minute and then resuming their careers the next.
Karl, don't lecture us on looks
A few years ago, I had dinner with Karl Lagerfeld. Or rather, he turned up late and didn't eat anything, as he was on a strict regime of diet drinks to shed a huge amount of weight. Karl certainly has forthright views. When told that Brigitte, Germany's most popular women's magazine, was to use only real women in future issues, Karl opined that people prefer to look at "skinny models and not fat mummies". He claimed that fashion was all about dreams and "no one want to see round women". Karl is 71, wears ludicrous high collars, powders his hair white, and stuffs himself into skin-tight black trousers and fingerless leather gloves. He has stopped being eccentric and become a bit of an embarrassment.
Oh, for the wings of a dove
The words pot and kettle sprang to mind when I read that the Church of England's 113 bishops spent £1.32m on travel in 2008. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been telling us recently that we should help combat climate change by flying less – so far this year he's been to Egypt, California, Japan and Jamaica – and I don't think he made those journeys on the wings of an angel. On the subject of emissions, the Bishop of London spent £27,264 on chauffeurs in 2008 – that's a lot of driving.
If the Church of England wants us to care about the environment, then perhaps it should set an example by using on-line conferencing, travel by public transport, and invest in a fleet of bikes and electric cars.