Paul Vallely: Don't moan about supermarkets – act

When small shops are pushed to the edge, it undermines a community that has the power to fight back

Share
Related Topics

My greengrocer was selling "local" Victoria plums last week. How local is local, I asked her. She named a road about half a mile away. We like the idea of that kind of shopping.

We trust the provenance of the goods. We know no fuel is being wasted transporting goods across many useless miles. We feel good, because local producers benefit and the local economy is stimulated. When pollsters ask us if we want more independent local shops, 80 per cent of us say yes. So why do we buy 97 per cent of our food from supermarkets?

Some 12,000 of the independent local shops we profess to love shut down in 2009 as the global financial crisis hit our high streets. Last year, another 2,000 went. Today, one in seven shops in town centres across the country stands empty, each a pulled tooth in the rotten mouth that is British high street shopping. Some areas have tried to counter the appearance of dereliction by plastering huge photographs in shop windows to give the impression they are still in use.

Some refuse to lament the change. Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker, last week announced cheerily that we have ceased to be a nation of shopkeepers and become one of online bargain-hunters. The high street is approaching its sell-by date, and a good thing too, she reckoned. Town centre retailers need to wake up, smell the coffee and accept that Starbucks will take over in the vacant shops.

Isn't this just embracing the inevitable? No, it is letting slip something which we will rue. I do two kinds of shopping. Once a fortnight I go to a supermarket and pile baked beans and toilet rolls into a trolley. But the rest of the time I visit my local parade of shops which has two butchers, two chemists, two greengrocers and two bakers, as well as a post office, hardware store and a florist.

The supermarket I often negotiate in total silence; thanks to the self-service scanners there's no need even to speak to the woman on the checkout. At the shops, by contrast, I meet all kinds of people, and talk to them in queues or across counters. It's where I was recommended our plumber, get cooking tips, hear the latest Manchester United transfer rumours, read notices about concerts in the park, discover why parents think standards are falling at the local school, and pick up the prescription which the chemist has collected from the doctor for me. The shops are the nexus of the knowledge, respect, trust and mutuality which bind the community in which I live.

Supermarkets are cheap and efficient. They stabilise quality and increase choice. They have transformed shopping even since my mother's day. But this comes at a cost. Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons account for more than three-quarters of all the foods we buy. They also grabbed almost 90 per cent of all new shop space given planning approval last year.

The counterpoint to this has been the drastic decline of neighbourhood shops. We have reached a tipping point where the increased expansion of supermarkets will do more harm than good.

Serious change is needed. But it is no good looking to existing planning regimes to restore balance. Local planning departments, now facing swingeing government cuts, are no match for the mighty supermarket industry. Routinely supermarkets exceed the limits or flout conditions laid down by councils once permission has been granted and building or trading is under way. Retailers provide inaccurate and misleading data to planners. They offer sweeteners, like community centres or sport facilities, to gain advantages over their rivals. And planners fear they will incur huge costs if they constantly challenge supermarkets in the courts.

Then there are the dirty tricks. They wrap land in legal covenants to prevent rivals building. They use front companies to buy sites so that sellers do not inflate prices and local people do not raise objections. In Renfrewshire, Tesco used a local property company to buy a shopping centre and over six years allowed it to fall into near dereliction so that when Tesco announced a building plan it was greeted "like a knight in shining armour" – until the ruse was uncovered.

Councils, which ought to be in control of this growth, directing it to where it will bring most benefit, seem bewildered by it. Lack of joined-up thinking even makes things worse. Parking planners routinely fail to see the economic consequences of slapping double yellow lines outside small shops and giving a superstore planning permission for a huge car park down the road.

Yet the toll all this is taking is clear enough. Since Woolworths went bust in 2008, a catalogue of household names has followed: Borders, T J Hughes, Thorntons, Habitat, MFI, Zavvi, Whittard, Oddbins and on it goes. And that is not to mention the independent neighbourhood shops. In 2008, 6 per cent of shops stood vacant; last year the figure had risen to 15 per cent. David Cameron is so concerned that he has appointed a TV star as shopping tsar; Mary Portas, the Queen of Shops, has been asked to chair an independent review into the British high street.

Don't get your hopes up. For all the blether about "localism" the prospects of a Supermarket Ombudsman to end supermarkets' bully boy tactics, which Tories and Lib Dems supported before the election, appears to be receding. What was supposed to be an "enforcer" is now to be an "adjudicator", and even this neutered option has been put on the back burner for two years. And don't look to Labour, which earlier this year helped to defeat a Scottish Nationalist proposal to impose a "supermarket tax" on retail premises worth £750,000 or more.

Protest seems the way forward. By which I don't mean burning down the new local Tesco, as squatters attempted in Bristol in May, but rather more genteel campaigns like the one led by Lady Caroline Cranbrook which has seen off a new Tesco in the Suffolk town of Saxmundham this month. Or the move by Abdul Arain, a small shopkeeper, standing against Lord Sainsbury to become chancellor of Cambridge University.

It is odds that need stacking now, rather than shelves. That means learning all the jargon about diversity of retail mix and suchlike to do battle with planners and retailers. It means balancing the figures for jobs created by superstores against those they destroy. It means demanding that councils incorporate into their local development frameworks enhanced powers to protect retail competitiveness.

We are not just consumers but citizens who live in a community. So we must not give in to what the American ecologist Garrett Hardin called "the tragedy of the commons". Herders grazing their cows on a public meadow thought they were acting in rational self-interest by piling on as many animals as possible. But their myopia, he showed, ultimately depleted the shared resource on which they all depended. Shops are more than places to buy things. They are part of who and how we are. It is not enough to simply use them. We need to fight for them.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker