Joan Bakewell: How we can stand up to the retail giants

I speak for a community that campaigned to drive away Starbucks. The battle can be won
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The Independent Online

We have a new fishmonger. Correction: we have a fishmonger. To have one at all is surely against the times. I had thought the days were long gone when local shops could expect to include a butchers with blue striped apron and sawdust on the floor; a bakery wafting the smell of newly baked bread into the street; a cobblers where you could have broken heels mended within minutes; and a family grocer, the kind where a dusty cat sits on the bacon slicer. That's how it was when I first moved here some four decades ago to a house that lies within a stride of a shopping street serving the daily needs of all its locals. As it once did.

Staying put so long gives me a personal ringside seat at the long-fought battle between small independent shops, the expansionist ambitions of the high- street chains and the remorseless trend towards lifestyle trivia that has steadily replaced the stuff of living in our high streets. Much of what is there today is charming: fancy flowers, neat little fashion boutiques, bathroom and bedroom accessories. But none of it is essential. Not as fish is essential, if what the health gurus tell us is true.

I have also seen the patterns of social life swirl around what was once a smoky little enclave behind Euston station, and is now touted as a powerbase of the glitterati among whom the names of Jude, Sienna and Gwen Stefani are persistently with us. Somehow their need for a cobbler, a baker and a family grocer hasn't been pressing. Perhaps the arrival of the fishmonger heralds a change. Perhaps the small shop - the David to the Goliath of the supermarkets - is fighting back and beginning to win.

I lift my head from buying moth-repellent at our miraculously surviving hardware store, long enough to notice that this same battle is engaged on a national scale. McDonald's has just announced it is to close 25 high street branches, and its European president has admitted it is facing something of a consumer backlash. Perhaps Jamie Oliver's influence plus the uproarious antics of Morgan Spurlock in the film Super Size Me are taking their toll on McDonald's profits. And perhaps the restaurant sites being vacated by the golden arches will go to homelier, more humble but possibly more tasty fare. McDonald's remain laconic, at least in public, to what they call a change in shopping habits. Which could mean they'll simply be opening up somewhere else.

Coincidentally, the fight against Tesco is gathering strength. On the internet, the website Tescopoly pours out facts and fighting talk as it rallies local people who want their homes and neighbouring shops to stay local. Campaigns are underway to save Shepton Mallet, Torrington in Devon, Wadebridge in Cornwall, Queens Market in Newham, East London. In all, some 200 local anti-supermarket campaigns are gearing up for the struggle. At the same time, the architectural press is weighing in to stem the tide of mega-sheds that Tesco is spewing across the country.

The latest alarm is that John Prescott has "called in" the planning application for the architect Piers Gough's imaginative scheme for a 16-acre prime site in Sunderland, derelict since a local brewer closed five years ago. Unhappily the land belongs to Tesco, whose plans for another mighty supermarket are sweetened by the promise of some 500 houses. That will appeal, no doubt, to John Prescott. Except that the Gough scheme promises some 1,000 homes. The question every David is asking is, how did the Goliath of Tesco recruit that other Goliath, John Prescott, to override the wishes of local people as expressed in their elected councillors.

I know full well why people shop at Tesco. The goods are amazingly cheap. Tesco's retail strategy is to run what must surely be loss leaders, and to buy in such bulk and from such dependent markets that it can force down the prices paid to producers more and more. This is brilliant retail policy, and totally without social or global responsibility. Initially, it seems to be an immediate blessing for the harassed shopper, for families that rightly seek to stretch a modest budget as far is it will go.

But the longer view will show that supermarkets damage neighbourhoods, kill off local and part-time jobs and gut the sense of communal loyalty from small villages and inner-city shopping streets. Tesco even has plans to close a slew of local post offices. I speak for a community that campaigned to keep its library open and lobbied to drive away Starbucks. I know the battle can be won.

But will our arriving fishmonger thrive? I am not utopian enough to imagine that stand-alone independent shops can any longer make it on their own. Not surprisingly, our fishmonger has other outlets - in Bristol, Bath, Islington and Christchurch. What's more it has the fashionable adjunct of a restaurant lurking somewhere behind the great marble slab on the street front. So this is not the return to old patterns. The whiff of nostalgia with which I began has hardened into a bright hope for new and smaller networks of shops that have a chance against the big beasts. This is already true of London's clothing boutiques, its accessory shops, its décor and furniture specialists. Where one alone can't thrive, small strings of shops can. What we need now is the collaboration of planning authorities to see they survive, and the neutering of John Prescott's right to overrule the wishes of local communities.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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