What Future for Llandeilo Town Centre?Posted: September 7, 2011
Llandeilo is full of beautiful and historic buildings. What will happen to them if Sainsbury’s builds a superstore on the eastern edge of town? Experience from all over the country shows that superstores damage town centres, because the population cannot simply magic the money out of thin air to be able to afford to shop in both the superstore and the existing shops. Something has to give, and generally it is the traditional shops, especially if they lack the brand power and marketing budgets of the big retailers.
Boarded-up town centres are in no-one’s interests. Quaint buildings which have seen centuries of history are interesting and individual to look at, while most superstores are functional but boring. Walking from shop to shop in a familiar town is a social activity. You are likely to come across people you know and have a chat. Superstores are privately owned, and you are there as a shopper. That is the only right you have, and it is a lesser right that the right of the citizen to move freely about the public spaces of a town.
I have been talking to people about superstores, and younger people often tell me that they ‘need’ to go to a big supermarket for their household shop because they can’t buy what they want locally. I have been surprised by this perception because I can find every food and household item I need whether I am in Llandeilo or Llandovery. The supposed wider choice in superstores is, I think, often different packagings of the same stuff. And who needs several metres of shelf space devoted to baked beans or toilet rolls? Maybe product choice is not the real issue. Could it all be about saving time?
Superstores are helpful to busy people with cars who are coping with families, jobs, and homes and who want to fit all their shopping into an hour a week, say. The downsides include urban blight resulting from shop closures, and a weakening of community, as the sole purpose of visiting a superstore is to shop, while in contrast a vibrant town will have public spaces for socialising, leisure, culture and community action. These public spaces are at risk when superstores dominate commerce.
Tesco came to Cardigan in 1994. I did a ‘Superstore Watch’ series at the time for Independent Retail News, and saw the devastating impacts on the town centre, which was soon in need of serious ‘regeneration’, and as such was a concern to the local authority, which had given permission for the Tesco development. A community group called Cymdeithas Cynnal a Cefnogi Cefn Gwlad / the Society to Sustain and Support the Rural Countryside came up, in summer 2010, with a plan to buy a disused site in Cardigan and to build a community shop focusing on local products, plus spaces for low-cost parking. Meanwhile, Tesco applied to double the size of its store and Sainsbury’s put in an application to open a 40,000 square feet superstore, with parking for 350 cars. Sainsbury’s application has been approved. Tesco opted to settle for a smaller extension, but the combined extra retail space is mind-boggling, especially as the original Tesco so damaged Cardigan’s shopkeepers.
The Sainsbury’s site, Bath House, is to be accompanied, apparently, by a health centre and a hospital. The store itself is to include a pharmacy and a restaurant. Some shoppers are rubbing their hands gleefully, anticipating a price war between the two retail giants. Shoppers often do not care about the trials of independent retailers, but if we let independents disappear, we are tacitly accepting a decline in local autonomy. If we all work for Tesco, or Sainsbury’s, or Morrisons, or ASDA, what independence do we have? We become tiny, vulnerable fish in a hostile global ocean. We do not have a greater choice of jobs, because new jobs in superstores are counterbalanced by job losses in the shops that have to downsize or are forced out of business. Households’ incomes are, by and large, fixed. They do not increase when new stores open! Dying towns mean the erosion of public spaces, and when they have gone, we have fewer possibilities to socialise and organise as communities. It is a case of perceived convenience today, against a future weakening of community resilience and identity.
BBC News carried a report on the major supermarket chains in December 2010. I was struck by this comment on the story, from David Worrall in Liverpool:
“There are 29 Tesco stores within 6.52 miles of Liverpool city centre. Liverpool Vision is the city’s economic development company. Sir Terry Leahy is CEO of Tesco and is also on the board of Liverpool Vision.”
Yes, the superstore companies are powerful. In consequence, town centres face a dismal future. Even if we sometimes succeed in slowing the onward march of superstores, I think we have seriously to rethink our town centres. Instead of streets lined with small shops and full of traffic, maybe we need a greater mix of uses: homes, specialist shops, cafés, pubs, markets, meeting places, offices, small workshops, pedestrian zones, parking, parks. More people could work in or near their homes, more errands could be accomplished by walking. Superstores empty town centres of people: if we allow more homes, workplaces and green spaces within towns, I think people will come back, and there is nothing better for a town than people who really enjoy living and working in it, and who value its past and its future.
 Sir Terry Leahy retired as CEO of Tesco in March 2011.
 ‘Growth of the ‘big four’ supermarkets’, December 22nd 2010.