Is the term "Tesco town" about to take on a whole new meaning? Hitherto, it has denoted towns where the arrival of a Tesco supermarket has squeezed out all competition, killing beloved local shops. Nor was Tesco the only culprit. A Competition Commission report found that the big food retailers were essentially carving up consumerdom between them, buying up land and keeping it vacant so as to preserve their monopoly and keep rivals away.
Now Tesco has engaged in some lateral thinking. It's proposing to build new supermarkets as one element in a complex that would include housing, other shops, restaurants, a nursery, perhaps a health centre. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is said to be favourably inclined to a proposal for one such in west London. Others outside the capital are on the drawing board.
And we all know what happens next: concerned local residents vow to fight the plans to the death, fearing a carpeting of concrete, an influx of cars and damage to the(ir) environment – all of which is long-hand for "the wrong sort of people". So it is with some trepidation that I admit to rather liking the idea.
I've never understood why there are not more mixed residential and commercial developments than there are – in or out of town. Single, and in my first job, there is nothing I would have liked more than to live in an American-style "serviced apartment" complex, with shops, a café and other facilities on site. There is still little that would more improve my quality of life (i.e. save precious time) than to have a clean, well-ordered supermarket at my door. Yes, I know there are the deliveries, the noise, and all those extra people. But there are quite a lot of those already.
There used to be a Catch 22 where banks routinely turned down applications for flats in mixed-use developments or demanded enormous deposits – so no one had any real incentive to build them. Much of the space above and around London's stations is simply wasted. I can't see why anyone – young, old, white-collar, blue-collar, with or without children – would not at least consider living in a complex that made life easier by having a range of facilities, including a decent maintenance service, on site.
Whether we need any more out-of-town shopping centres is a separate discussion. But there can be no harm at all in developing the spacious sites around existing hypermarkets, to add housing, recreation, a nursery and the rest. There is almost nothing that keeps down living standards in this country more than the scarcity of our housing, and the poor quality, high prices and inconvenient location of so much of it. If it takes a successful supermarket chain to change that, so be it. Tesco – if you build it, they will come.
Rise and fall of a Gallic plutocracy
It's more than three years ago now that Nicolas Sarkozy made the City of London a high-profile stop on his campaign trail for the French presidency. He sought to tap into a likely source of electoral support for his free-market platform, but also to convince France's bright young exiles that their go-getting talents would be justly rewarded in Sarko-land.
Well, Sarko has since executed an adroit about-turn on the value of the City of London as a model and I doubt he will be singing its praises again very soon. But have you noticed how many of the errant bankers surfacing in the wash of the global financial crisis are French? The latest was Fabrice Tourre, the self-styled "Fabulous Fab", who defended himself at a US Senate grilling this week – a culture clash if ever there was one.
Now it may simply be that the Anglo-Saxons like nothing better than to "finger" the most successful Gallic bankers when looking for someone to blame. But might it not rather be that the young French financiers who sought their fortune in the UK and the US were of a particular stamp: ambitious risk-takers who felt stifled by the conservatism of French banking, whose very French personal style, flair and ingenuity at once accelerated their rise up the hierarchy. I may be wrong, but I doubt you would find a British or American Fabrice Tourre.
Small appliances – and big complications
And another thing about national stereotypes... Why are we British so faddish when it comes to small appliances? When my trusty coffee- machine died a predictable death a year or so ago, it was nigh impossible to find a replacement that did not look as though it belonged behind the bar of an Italian restaurant or would not have taken up half the kitchen counter. I brought one back from Germany, where there's a fine selection, in a choice of sizes, for around £30 or less.
I have a suspicion that profit margin might have something to do with it. Last weekend, after my husband's beard trimmer retired exhausted, mid-trim, after years of faithful service, you would have found me traipsing around every likely shop in the vicinity of Victoria in search of a replacement.
My research soon showed that the beard trimmers of yesteryear have been replaced by "men's grooming tools", or "stubble trimmers", which come with a multiplicity of attachments. These include a charger that plugs into the mains – which, of course, means you can't keep said trimmer in the bathroom (health and safety permitting nothing more risky than a shaver socket) – not much good for travelling. I found only two battery models among the dozens of men's grooming aids. So shamefully outmoded is battery power apparently deemed to be, that this crucial fact was omitted from the details on the packaging. Oh yes, and it goes without saying, battery-powered trimmers are cheaper.