Leading article: Hard choices for town, country and shoppers

Share

The All-Parliamentary Small Shops Group will today publish a report arguing that the supermarket chains gain an unfair advantage over other retailers in all sorts of underhand ways, and that a "supermarket regulator" is needed to keep them in line. We should take all this with a pinch of salt. This organisation of MPs is essentially a lobbying group for small retailers. Yet today's report is useful in the sense that it draws our attention to the wider issue of supermarkets and their growing influence on our national life.

There is a growing body of opinion which says that this influence has been abused. Supermarkets are accused of using their control of 75 per cent of the grocery market to squeeze suppliers and farmers. They are held responsible for the closure of 2,000 small food outlets each year, and the decline of the high street. Part of the problem, of course, is Tesco. This company is, in many ways, a victim of its success. By achieving such dominance it has become a whipping boy for the sector.

Tesco has undoubtedly pioneered some of the more harmful practices of supermarkets in recent years. One example is the mass import of food. Supermarkets increasingly choose to fly in produce, even though much of it could be sourced locally. At the height of the British apple season two years ago, more than half the apples on supermarket shelves came from abroad. Importing fresh food by air is responsible for thousands of tons of fossil fuel emissions each day. It may be cheaper, but the environmental cost is immense. There are also legitimate concerns about the fact that so many supermarkets are still based outside towns, encouraging people to use their cars.

We should be wary of laying the blame for all this on the supermarkets, however. Other factors are also involved in the decline of the high street. Business rates are one example. The fact that so many charity shops are springing up (which are largely exempt from these rates) while other independent retailers are closing indicates that shops are too highly taxed. Town planning is also a factor. The recent decision by Barnet Council in London to prevent a Tesco Express store being built shows that local planning authorities are perfectly able to stand up to the supermarkets.

We must also be wary of jumping to the conclusion that the free market has failed, for all of Tesco's growing dominance. The increasing number of delicatessens, organic food shops and farmers' markets shows that the middle classes - often frustrated with the quality of fresh food offered by supermarkets - are voting with their feet. In time, supermarkets may find that there are limits to their expansion after all. The boom in internet home deliveries also has the potential to change shopping habits for everyone.

The role of the Government is to facilitate, not interfere, with the free market. We must recognise that the reason the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury are so successful is that people like shopping in their stores; there is a genuine consumer demand. But the market cannot be unfettered. There are reasonable measures the Government could take to improve matters, such as a tax on air fuel. This would force supermarkets to think twice about importing food and would also encourage them to use local producers. A tax on supermarket parking also has its merits from an environmental perspective.

Blind opposition to the big chains is futile. Supermarkets are here to stay. The problem that MPs and activists ought to be grappling with is not how the influence of supermarkets can be rolled back, but what can be done at both national and local level to make these retail behemoths act more responsibly to the benefit of everyone in our society.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: KS2 Teacher needed in Peterborough a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The appearance of Miguel Arias Canete at a Brussels hearing last Wednesday caused 100,000 people to sign a petition to prevent his appointment  

TTIP is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the EU's suspect relationships with corporations

Lee Williams
 

Being catcalled, groped and masturbated at is a common part of the female experience

Bryony Beynon
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain