Enough Supermarkets! Now, how do we create vibrant towns for tomorrow?

by Pat Dodd Racher

Who notices when a ‘service’ mutates into a tyranny? What, in fact, does a tyranny look like? These questions rose to the top of my over-cluttered mind on Saturday, November 17th 2012, at the first ‘Independence Day’ gathering, held in Wesley Methodist Church, Frome, Somerset.

The dominant topic was supermarkets and how to stop them closing down our town centres, but the issue is much wider and relates to the power of money, money used to finance psychological research; money for marketing and blanket advertising; and money to buy influence over political processes.

It’s also about the failures of local communities to create more humane alternatives. It’s about public spaces and how to protect them. It’s about resistance to apathy.

The many stories we heard of battles against supermarket giants gave me an acronym, PFUDS.

PFUDS stands for keep to the Point, communicate Fast, Use the skills and methods at your disposal to maximum effect, Delegate, and Simplify.

The hardest of these, I reckon, is Simplify. Distilling the complexities of reality into a memorable message is complicated, and failure means that your campaign is likely to sink with a negative pfud.

Another big message from the day was the importance of a positive vision. Just being against a supermarket development is not enough – there has to be a vision for a more satisfying future.

Keep Frome Local, the organisers, lined up an impressive range of speakers. Andrew Simms, of the New Economics Foundation and the author of Tescopoly, talked about the social benefits of small shops within communities, as places for meeting and for exchanging news good and bad. In the USA, he said, studies about the impact of mega retailer Walmart on communities showed that wages fell, voter participation fell and social contact declined.

Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Towns, said that several local authority chief executives he had met recently were aware that years of economic growth had come to an end, and that more local resilience would be essential. Neil Lawson, chair of the left-leaning campaigning organisation Compass and author of All Consuming, spoke about the capture of the political system by what he called the consumer-industrial complex. Shop less, he said. Judith Whateley, co-ordinator of the Tescopoly network, stressed that there was no substitute for scrutinising the volumes of planning documents which have to be submitted with each application, to find points to challenge. Several speakers, including Dave Chapman of Bridgwater Forward, drew attention to the importance of communications with planning officers and councillors. In Frome itself, the group Independents for Frome has a majority on the town council.

The colourful presence of the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft, Bristol, included wares from their bone china decorating workshop, adorned with political and campaign slogans and graphics. The china has been rescued from closed-down factories in the Staffordshire Potteries. Brilliant idea from innovator Chris Chalkley, I thought.

Richard Hadley from Ledbury told how the townspeople defeated applications by both Tesco and Sainsbury. They used similar marketing techniques to their superstore opponents, and stressed economic damage, job losses, traffic hell, shop closures and falling house prices. They beat the superstore operators at their own game. Joanna Blythman in discussion with The Guardian’s John Harris spoke about the Fife Diet, a local eating campaign in Scotland and part of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming. Joanna, author of Shopped: the Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, and of other books, has long campaigned against the superstore model of food retailing.

Independence Day was truly national, with participants from Scotland, Wales and all over England. For me it was a valuable educational workshop on campaigning – thanks also to David Babbs and Alex Lloyd from 38 Degrees – and now attention turns to ‘What Next?’ in the effort to revive retail diversity and end the rise of monopolies and with them the high risk of a tyrannical application of combined commercial and political power. Walmart in the USA is a form of tyranny, and I don’t want to travel any further down the road towards it, paved though it may be with good intentions.

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