Terence Blacker: Tear down these ugly cathedrals of capitalism

For the first time, the wisdom of sacrificing local businesses to help a conglomerate is being questioned
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The Independent Online

Like a dirty old man handing out sweets to children in a park, the supermarket industry has learnt how best to disguise its true motives. As it moves across the country, colonising market towns and rural areas as it goes, it offers, during the planning process, a variety of treats and promises which are reported by a largely uncritical local press. There will be new jobs for the area. Trees will be planted. If a local park needs a playground, or a school a football pitch, then their wish will be granted. Not far from where I live, a stretch of scrubland behind a new superstore has been transformed into a "wildlife area".

This PR nonsense, which assumes a high level of gullibility among consumers, continues after the supermarket has opened. While strangling the life out of businesses in the area, it will forever be expressing its commitment to the community. Shoppers will be invited to contribute vouchers for school computers. At times of public tragedy or loss, a condolence book will be produced, as if to confirm the caring, friendly, quasi-religious role to which a modern supermarket aspires.

Recently, and with a shamelessness one almost has to admire, the environmental card had been played. Supermarkets have encouraged the maximum use of plastic bags; now they put out bins so that one or two bags can be recycled. Tesco have taken to designing their new stores with wind turbines above the front entrance, employed to create the correct ecological impression.

Never mind the awkward facts - that supermarkets transport goods across the world, that they encourage customers to drive further for their provisions, that they package their goods to an absurd degree, that they send luckless animals hundreds of miles to their own abattoirs on the other side of the country. The general message is clear: your friends at Sainsbury, Waitrose, Tesco or Asda care deeply about ethics and energy.

Vast profits for shareholders, a hard-eyed ruthlessness in its business dealings and warm words for the public: there could be fewer more apposite memorials to New Labour than the sprawling, ugly cathedrals of mass consumption which have appeared across the country over the past 10 years. Supermarkets may do little for local economies or for the environment, but there has been little prospect of central government questioning their growing dominance of the retail sector.

But now there are signs that consumers, and just now and then their representatives on local councils, are taking a tougher line. For the first time, the wisdom of sacrificing local businesses to help the profits of a conglomerate is being questioned, and the claim that supermarkets bring jobs has been revealed as one-sided nonsense.

The malign effects of introducing a superstore into a market town have been there to see. Now the Campaign to Protect Rural England have come up with the bright idea of examining what happens in an area which has actually been spared a supermarket.

Nine years ago, Suffolk Coastal Council bravely withstood the blandishments of Tesco and rejected planning permission for one of their outlets near Saxmundham. The result, according to a new CPRE report, has been that local food producers, shops and employment have benefited. Within the catchment area of the proposed superstore, independent shops have bucked the national trend and are thriving. There has been no reduction in the number of local post offices. The number of growers and suppliers of local food has increased from 300 to 370.

It would be surprising if the inhabitants of Saxmundham feel hugely deprived by the lack of a Tesco. Given the choice, 70 per cent of shoppers would prefer to buy food from local sources; that comprises about 2 per cent of most supermarkets' stock.

There is an incipient wastefulness in a culture that encourages the giant weekly shop. In addition to the millions of items that pass their sell-by date unsold and are thrown away by supermarkets every day, customers are encouraged to be profligate too. "We are pretty idle when we have food left over in our houses," none other than Lord Haskins of Northern Foods has told us. "We can't be bothered to deal with leftovers. We are risk averse. We're obsessed with sell-by dates, so that we throw away perfectly good food which happens to be out of code."

But, beyond the ethical good sense of shopping small, customers who are lucky enough to have decent local shops have discovered that the cost-choice-convenience mantra offered by supermarkets is at least two-thirds a lie. Buy local food from local suppliers and it will be cheaper; the choice will probably be better, too.

And what of convenience? Perhaps the best reason for local councils to follow the sensible example set by Saxmundham is one that is not quantifiable in statistics or surveys. It concerns the quality of everyday living. Shopping in a wasteful, profit-led, emporium is a deadening experience from which one emerges laden down and depressed. It is like entering a capsule of nothingness from which all the colour and variety of normal life has been leeched.

The CPRE report is a useful reminder that all sorts of hidden economic benefits attend the resistance of the supermarket invasion. Very often the town whose focus becomes a neon-lit temple of capitalism and consumption will have lost not only jobs and businesses, but much of its individuality, too.