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Paul Vallely: 'In shops here, the level of attentiveness borders on a free social service'

Home And Away

The woman who serves in Bargain Booze used to be a social worker. It seems it's a calling that never leaves you.

By which I don't mind that she steers old gents off the 100 degrees proof vodka and onto the 40 degrees raspberry version on the grounds that it's better for their livers and gives them one of their five-a-day. No, it's more that she waxes lyrical about the benefits of "social shopping". But then she's not the only one who's been doing that recently where I live.

Let me explain. It began when the local council, Trafford, splashed out £5,000 of our council tax on hiring a firm of surveyors to write to local businesses about the free car park down the road in Sale Moor to "invite interested parties to submit proposals for this land". It would have been a lot cheaper if they had sent a personable young lady with a clipboard to stand in the street to ask passers by.

What she would have been told is that most people think that the kind of development the car park needs is limited to replacing the asphalt whose surface resembles something like the photos now being sent by the Americans' Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. What the council wanted, my neighbours all suspected, was to flog off the site for the building of a supermarket. The barometer of local ire began to rise.

We're not against supermarkets round here. We have a half-decent Sainsbury's, Tesco and M&S five minutes drive down the road in Sale. There's a mega-Tescos in Altrincham not much further off, where we've just got a nice new Waitrose.

But we don't need one in Sale Moor, the little village halfway between Sale and the big council estate at Baguely which is where your car will most likely end up if it's nicked late at night. I always though that "Burned Out in Bag-lee" would have been a good title for a Clash song had they ever ventured this far north in the days when car crime was rife. It's been dropping between 10 and 20 per cent a year in suburban Manchester recently, much to the chagrin of those who rejoice in stereotypes.

Sale Moor is a pleasant assembly of shops which includes the best butchers for miles (Taylors, which has been here 150 years). It's an oasis of old-time quality and service and a model of the free market with two butchers, two chemists, two green-grocers, and two bakers as well as a post office and a very fine made-to-order cake shop.

Taylors hangs its beef for three weeks out the back, sells delicious pork which is all free range, and offers the finest Cheshire lamb. In the greengrocers you can get bunches of watercress and whole radicchio rather than the shredded stuff you find in the supermarket salad bags. In Hugall's the chemist, which has also been there 100 years, with one Mr Hugall succeeding another, you get a level of gracious attentiveness which borders on a free social service rather than mere commercial enterprise.

All this means that Sale Moor is not just a place which substitutes for a supermarket (we still pay a fortnightly visit there) but rather surpasses one. And the free car park means that you can do your entire weekly shop there, nipping back to the car from each shop with each bagful. More than that it is, as the Bargain Booze lady puts it, a place where shopping is social. Mothers out with toddlers in buggies chat in the street on their daily pop-out for a few extras. Old ladies gossip over a cappuccino in the caff. Taciturn old gents stand exchanging their few words outside the Spar, dangling carriers containing just a tin of salmon and a loaf of bread.

Now here's an ending to the story that you weren't expecting. A group of local activists, calling themselves Trafford Heritage Society, got together a campaign against the supermarket plan. They raised a 2,500 signature petition, established a Sale Moor Covenant and set up a lively website, complete with filmed vox pops of local people voicing their fears that the small specialist retailers would be forced out of business if a supermarket arrived.

It worked. At the weekend Cllr Mike Cornes, the pooterishly named Executive Member for Economic Growth on Trafford Council, announced that they will not be selling the free car park and, indeed, will fully resurface it early next year. A victory for people power. Now there's a rarity in modern British political life.

Brian Viner is away