Janet Street-Porter: Convenience comes at a (very high) price

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The Independent Online

Yesterday was a depressing day for small shopkeepers. They must really wonder whether this government gives a stuff about their livelihoods. We all know that few government ministers travel by public transport – and so they can sign up to the misguided belief that increased road use is not going to damage the environment – as Ruth Kelly announced to general incredulity the other day.

And we know that Gordon and co very rarely do their own shopping and consequently have very little idea of the impact of Tesco and its rivals on high streets and town centres all over Britain. Successive governments have welcomed the chief executives of supermarkets into the House of Lords and dished out honours to these overpaid chaps as if they have come up with a cure for Aids or increased pensions for the elderly, when all they have done is deliver increased profits to their shareholders.

Research shows that the price charged for basic food in our supermarkets is among the highest in Europe – and prices are going up, not down. Our laissez-faire attitudes have allowed retailers to purchase land on a massive scale, enabled them to build more than one store outside many of our small towns, sucking the life out of small businesses and now we are going to let them open up medical centres, all in the name of progress.

Tesco is funding research into the environment at one of our most respected universities and is closely involved with teaching nutrition in schools. Yet no one in government ever sees this muddying between the private sector and the provision of public services such as health care and education as anything other than a Good Thing.

The Competition Commission produced its interim report on supermarkets yesterday and found that they were not guilty of denying consumers choice and they did not bully small shops and competitors. In spite of acknowledging a need for improvement, the commission is unlikely to appoint an ombudsman to monitor the relationship between retail giants and their suppliers. Any shortcomings will probably be dealt with by tightening the existing code of practice.

Controversially, they have decided that Tesco (with over 30 per cent of the grocery market) is not in such a strong position that other retailers cannot compete. It seems that the Competition Commission seems more interested in the intense rivalry between supermarket chains than the fragile relationship between small shops and big chains. Consultants Verdict Research have found that supermarkets account for eight out of 10 customers, and that small retailers will have to operate collectively to compete effectively in the future.

In the end, moaning about Tesco is pointless. Consumers have to decide what price we are prepared to pay for convenience – and that price also encompasses environmental factors. If we want our high streets to flourish, then we have to patronise them. If we want local farmers to survive, then we have to use small markets, box schemes, and local greengrocers.

In an area such as Kent, like many parts of Britain, there is a stark choice. You can go and push a trolley around the Tesco or Sainsbury outside every single major town, or walk around a farmer's market buying produce that has been grown in local fields and orchards, and eat meat slaughtered locally. In the end, there is a limited amount the Competition Commission can do – other than ensure suppliers are fairly treated. It's the consumer that holds the ultimate power in this retail war.

Bigging it up for the bigger gal

Obesity is the word linked to bad news on a daily basis. This week an American medical journal revealed that fat children who watch more two hours of television a day are twice as likely to develop high blood pressure, and the World Cancer Research Fund claimed that there is a clear link between obesity and cancer.

Is there no good news for fatties? Well, the London production of the musical Hairspray, based on John Walters' cult movie, has opened to rave reviews for Leanne Jones, a newcomer to the West End stage, who won the part of chubbie Tracy Turnblad after 13 auditions. Unlike Michael Ball, who plays her mother, Leanne doesn't wear a fat suit. What a fabulous role model.

* I'm fascinated by a couple of recent disappearances. First, the case of Cherie Blair's Lancashire accent. Yesterday, our former First Lady was interviewed by Sarah Montague on Radio 4 to promote her lecture on women's rights for Today and Chatham House. Cherie was keen to discuss the impact that religion can have on restricting women's rights, particularly in Islamic countries. I don't suppose she finds it too distressing when she's having a family holiday in Egypt. Cherie's flat Lancashire accent has been completely tutored out of her, clearly in readiness for the lucrative American lecture circuit, and she now sounds convincingly southern. The second disappearance –which will surprise no one – is of the person who shot two rare (and protected) hen harriers on the Royal Estate at Sandringham. Although Prince Harry and a friend appear to have been the only people shooting that day, and were in the area at the time, they have no idea what happened. It must be the Invisible Man.