Looking after our traditional independent retailers in local High Streets is generally a much better tonic for our communities, economies and personal well-being.
In Herefordshire we're just catching up with Modern Britain it seems. There has been an onslaught of planning applications for big out of town boxes of late; proposals in Leominster, Ross and Ledbury have all thankfully been refused on the grounds that they would damage their existing town centres. It just remains to wait on Bromyard's fate as Tesco attempts a smash and grab on the town. Local campaigners continue to battle the corporate giant every inch of the way fearful that Tesco's out of town proposal will suck the life out of their delightful and vibrant town centre.
You have to be made of tough stuff to stand up to Big Retail. Anti-supermarket campaigners are on the frontline of bitter conflicts in their communities, ignited by potent social and economic faultlines in twenty first century Britain.
Variously portrayed as NIMBY’s and self-interested middle class toffs who are remote from the concerns of hard-pressed working families, High Street supporters are often the target of black propaganda campaigns by the supermarket PR companies. Experts at quietly dripping poison into host communities, the spin merchants cleverly exploit sometimes gullible local weeklies, shorn of journalists and hungry for cheap stories. Say one of Sainsbury’s PR agencies euphemistically: “we recognise the importance of maintaining and utilising public support in the time leading up to a planning decision. Your vocal supporters are more important than ever and working closely with them is crucial to a successful planning outcome.”
The argument goes that it’s fine if you can afford to live out of the local deli and troll about the farmers market stalls shopping for cavolo nero and organic bacon, but ordinary hard-working people are meanwhile being denied cheap groceries, long opening hours and one-stop shopping convenience. With their friends in high places, posh High Street champions are selfishly denying ‘choice’ and ‘value’, as well as thwarting ‘progress’.
The populist message, cynically pitting the better off against the hard-pressed, finds a receptive audience among all those salt of the earth, hard-working families, battered by falling living standards, rising prices and cuts in public services. As the libraries and public loos close, the pot-holes are left unrepaired and the cost of food and energy balloons, the supermarket spin doctors know well that every little ‘we’re on your side’ nod and wink, helps their money-grabbing cause very much indeed.
The discourse of discontent finds an easy target among those hapless liberal fools like me who campaign for the survival of our traditional High Streets with their butchers, green-grocers and bookshops. We get swept up in a tidal surge of bitter frustration against an economic and political system which has looked after the privileged and powerful but has ignored the concerns and aspirations of ordinary working people.
In ancient Rome, a corrupt political elite was accused by satirist Juvenal of keeping a restive populace quiet with Bread and Circuses. Our modern equivalent may just be the out of town superstore, a palace of plenty, sanitised and brilliantly illuminated as a beacon of hope in a darkening economic landscape. The lonely miles of aisles seduce and becalm our restless souls, 24-7. In the old days we used to go to museums and libraries to nourish the mind; now we spend the weekend browsing illusory ‘bogoffs’ and special offers to satisfy our inner hunter-gatherer. With their cheap chic and garish colour-ways, superstores are designed to appease that horrible creeping fear that the whole system is actually falling apart: situation normal, let’s go shopping.
A frequent reason put forward by the pro-superstore enthusiasts is that the towns that are prey to the supermarket developers are desolate places with nothing to do, nothing for young people, nothing to offer. Thus a giant Sainsbury’s or Tesco out on the bypass is just the thing we need, will drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century, will somehow slake the pervasive ennui of our straitened times and diminished horizons. We mightn’t be able to afford all those Finest lines, or even be able to Taste the Difference, but at least we can stand and gawp at the unimaginable richness which is laid out before us, like a Sultan’s banquet. It's a mirage.
‘To regard a modern supermarket as a shop is to miss the point’ says psychologist David Lewis. ‘Rather they are meticulously engineered selling machines whose sole purpose is to supply consumers with their necessities and do everything possible to stimulate their desires’ - and not only ‘in-store’ (why do I hate this usage so much?). In their single-minded quest for profit, supermarket retailers hire the finest consumer psychologists, brand marketeers, PR and advertising agents and planning consultants to achieve that shareholder nirvana, which is total market domination.
Monopolies by single companies are of course illegal these days, but the law is toothless in the face of the informal cartel of the Big Four supermarket players which have already taken over Britain’s shopping economy. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons now account for over £9 in every £10 spent on foodstuffs. Incredibly, over the next few years these supermarket chains are planning to open enough new stores to cover 500 football pitches, twice as much retail space exists already. It is the biggest store opening programme in the history of retailing.
With no hint of irony Sainsbury’s ex-boss Justin King said: "What I think we need to do is... be brave enough to shrink the high street and allow empty shops to be converted for other uses such as residential where there is over-capacity." Breathtaking in its chutzpah, it is precisely because of Mr King’s expansionist strategy that so many shops lie empty, so many formerly bustling town centres are gasping for life, like fish in a polluted watercourse. Sainsbury’s and their ilk are the very reason for the over capacity, and for the dilapidation that has overtaken so many once-thriving shopping streets. Take a stroll through Worcester St John's once beautiful, bustling village centre and weep for what has been lost.
It’s not just jobs that are at stake in our towns and village centres – though plenty disappear when an OOTS opens up – local high streets and suburban parades define the very places in which we live, provide that sense of proud belonging that goes to the heart of our well-being.
Those local butchers, greengrocers, bookshops, ironmongers, cobblers, jewellers and all the other little shops that make traditional market towns so likeable, characterful and yes, old-fashioned, represent human lives – people who live, work hard and spend their profits in the local economy, who employ window cleaners and accountants, pay business rates and rent to keep the townscape and the buildings they inhabit in good condition. Crime and anti-social behaviour are strangers to well maintained, prosperous traditional high streets, but close bedfellows of boarded up shops, steel shuttered premises, tagged and daubed, of unkempt pavements where nobody wants to walk any more.
The big supermarket operators thrive on apathy and disillusion, and to get their way, to take over our towns and lives, they nurture people’s sense of grievance at the awful state of things. Soon, when their market share is 100%, and so many of our traditional High Streets have been dismally shrunk to a few hairdressers and charity shops, the cruel deception that has been visited on those struggling working class communities will be complete. We will pay exactly what they want to charge and eat exactly what they decide to stock. And our choice will lie between Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons or Asda. It’s called Hobson’s Choice.
Good luck Bromyard.