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.


Ireland’s Narrow Roads Benefit the Foodie Town of Skibbereen

by Pat Dodd Racher, September 18 2012

Ireland has 96,029 kilometres of roads, according to www.boards.ie. Whitaker’s Almanack says 96,036 kilometres. That’s a lot of road for a small population of 4.59 million, in fact only about 48 persons per kilometre.  The UK in contrast has over 158 persons per kilometre of road. Ireland’s roads are well maintained considering their length and the financial crisis besetting the country, but there are lots of potholes, and just as importantly for big lorries, the roads are overwhelmingly single-carriageway.

Down in the far south west, the big supermarket chains are refreshingly absent. Although Tesco has moved into Ireland’s cities, there is no Tesco in Skibbereen, West Cork, Ireland’s most southerly town. The German discounter Lidl has arrived, but otherwise the food stores are independent or co-operative. The Spar at the Drinagh Co-op in Skibbereen has a coffee shop selling amazing cakes, and the other big central supermarket, SuperValu, is independently owned by local firm Fields. SuperValu is a symbol group, the name franchised from the Musgrave Group of Dublin (which also has the Centra name in Ireland and the Budgens and Londis names in the UK).

Attractive buildings, free parking, a buzz: Skibbereen

Skibbereen is a vibrant town, which this month staged the Taste of West Cork Food Festival. Restaurants, pubs, shops, hotels, the Heritage Centre, in fact virtually the whole of Skibbereen, created a foodfest with almost 50 events. The town’s population is only about 2,000 people, and they show how much a community can achieve if everyone works together. Fair trade, organic produce, community gardens, farmers’ markets, Skibbereen fuses town and country and has a long history besides.

The famine of the 1840s, mass starvation and emigration are commemorated in the Heritage Centre, constructed from the former gas works. The now-closed Mercy Heights convent, near the cathedral, is on sale for development but, like sites all over Ireland, is languishing on the market. There are vacant shops, closed restaurants, but most of Skibbereen is soldiering on, surviving, celebrating the survival. Parking is free, and shoppers’ spending mostly stays in the locality. That changes if remotely-owned retail multiples come to dominate. Then money is sucked out, never to return.

Those potholes and narrow roads are protecting Skibbereen from the articulated trucks which deliver just-in-time to superstores. I never thought I’d start to applaud potholes as community saviours!

Plenty of public space, independent shops, flowers and bright paint: recipe for lively small towns

Why more shops won’t regenerate Llanelli

Pawnshops, payday loans and bargain basement stores: the former steel town of Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, is a poster for hard-up Britain. A £60 million regeneration programme will bring many more spending opportunities to the population, but incomes are already stretched to the maximum and beyond. See West Wales News Review for an illustrated article arguing against retail and leisure developments as economic saviours.

Planning Policies are Fossilized (Like our Diminishing Energy Supplies)

Why is our county council so intent upon encouraging developments that are out of all proportion to local needs?

I suspect that a fossilized outlook prevails, an outlook which accepts as inevitable that ‘development’ requires large, probably multinational, organisations with pockets full of cash. These big players can provide ‘planning gain’ or bungs for projects the council wants but cannot afford.

The multinationals have long supply chains which are inherently unstable and unreliable. We haven’t taken sufficient notice of this, because we have been living through the false affluence of the Oil Age, which is now unravelling.

County council planners may be aware of Peak Oil as individuals, but the planning policies they have to work with were written in the past, when scarcely anyone envisaged a future with LESS of everything to share around. Planning policies assume that, every year, there will be

  • More cars on the roads, therefore a need for more roads.
  • Sufficient fuel for unlimited numbers of vehicles.
  • Separation of homes from work zones, because travel will be cheap and fast.
  • Work in a world of global supply chains, in which it is economic to transport even low-value goods across the world.
  • Rising household incomes.
  • Households insisting on more choice.
  • Households buying large quantities of food and goods that are never eaten or are rarely used.
  • Tourism, tourism and more tourism.

All of the above depend on cheap oil, and cheap oil has gone. There will probably be price undulations, but the overall direction is UP.

Planning policies do not allow for such a radical shift in the way we live, and therefore condemn us to unnecessary future dereliction, as superstores fall silent and carless households look for local supplies of essentials.

Here in Carmarthenshire we have planning applications for eye-watering quantities of shopping space and of new industrial units, as if there were no recession. The planners tend to favour BIG applications even if they mean tearing up their own planning guidelines, as in the case of the Sainsbury’s superstore application for the little town of Llandeilo, on land likely to flood and anyway not zoned for retailing. The planners are also recommending approval for an even larger Sainsbury’s just 10 miles away – this is a rural area, remember – at Cross Hands. The main reason for the enthusiasm to help Sainsbury’s cast its net over the county seems to be ‘choice’. The next stage of the thinking process is missing, not because planners are dumb but because planning policies are cast in the image of the expansionist recent past. Logically, retail capacity in excess of the population’s ability to spend will reduce choice because stores will close. Carte blanche for new superstores to open, and to let them compete to the death, is an invitation for monopoly to emerge. That is the unfettered capitalist model, in which competition is valued above people.

The promise of choice is generally a false offer. What difference is there between Tesco cornflakes and Sainsbury’s cornflakes? Between ASDA milk and Morrisons milk? Food superstores have loads of processed foods in boxes, and even if the brands are different, the foods are often manufactured in the same factories. Food superstores encourage us to buy more stuff than we need, and that is a major reason for their spread over our crowded United Kingdom.

I would love to change the planning regulations to favour small-scale and local enterprise, rooted in communities rather than imposed from outside. Sadly the trend in 2012 is to shred the supposed sustainability agenda and to change the meaning of the word ‘sustainable’ to mean growth at all costs. The abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission in March 2011 was a signpost to this outdated growth-is-all agenda.

Absentee Landlords Never Went Away

Capital Shopping Centres Group owns 14 of the UK’s biggest shopping malls, those private destinations with vast car parks and the same store chains. From Renfrew’s Braehead in Scotland to The Glades at Bromley in Kent, from St David’s in Cardiff to Chapelfield, Norwich, Capital’s shopping centres are the new, privatised urban centres.

The Metro Centre in Gateshead and Eldon Square in Newcastle, in North East England, are both owned by Capital. Going into Newcastle by bus from Ryton last week, the route was via the Metro Centre. Lots of roads, flat-pack style architecture, the big chains like Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser, Argos. Fashion chains including Bhs, Next, Primark, River Island, Zara. The merchandise looks similar wherever you are in the UK. The shoppers show remarkable conformity in dress: water-resistant zipper jackets, body-warmers and fleeces in sombre colours; blue jeans, black trousers; hoods and woolly hats. It’s almost as if every shopper brought their clothing in the same store.

Shopping centres offer jobs, but no more jobs than if they did not exist. People spent money before shopping centres were created, and the arrival of a new mall does not increase the total household income in the catchment area. Some individuals benefit, if they move from unemployment to employment in one of the new shops, but they are counterbalanced by those whose jobs disappear as shoppers switch their spending from high streets to mega malls.

“The chain stores are cheaper,” some shoppers may say, as they desert their local independent stores. That cheapness comes at a heavy price, though. The profits made by national retailers flow away from the towns and cities where most stores are located, to the shareholders. Some of the profit will drip back in the form of pensions and dividends provided by institutional investors like insurance companies and unit trusts, but lots of shoppers don’t have investments or a pension. Local manufacturers often lack the capability to supply the volumes required by the big chains, or to undercut foreign suppliers whose workers receive far less than the UK minimum wage.

At Capital Shopping Centres Group, landlord for the national chains in 14 malls, profits also flow elsewhere. The major shareholders, according to Morningstar today, February 21st 2012, are John Whittaker, owning 20.1%; Tokenhouse Holdings (IOM) Ltd (20.07%); Donald Gordon Family Interest (10.73%); and Coronation Asset Management (10.21%).

Mr Whittaker, a billionaire and philanthropist who comes from a family of textile mill owners, built up the Peel Group, which was the force behind the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester. Capital bought the Trafford Centre in January2011, and Mr Whittaker gained a seat on the board.  The Peel Group describes itself as a “leading infrastructure, transport and real estate investment company”; owns the site in Salford to which much of the BBC has relocated; and is controlled by Tokenhouse Holdings (IOM) Ltd. Tokenhouse, owner of 20.07% of Capital, has its registered office at Billown Mansion, Mr Whittaker’s home on the Isle of Man, which is of course a noted tax haven.

Coronation Asset Management, owner of 10.21% of Capital, is an investment firm based in Cape Town, South Africa. Donald Gordon Family Interest is an investment entity from South Africa. Sir Donald Gordon, a citizen of the UK and South Africa, founded the Liberty Life insurance company in South Africa and the Liberty International property and shopping centres business in the UK. Liberty International plc demerged its London assets in 2010 and the shopping centres outside London became Capital Shopping Centres Group, of which Sir Donald is life president.  Like Mr Whittaker, he is a billionaire and is a serious philanthropist.

Despite the philanthropy, I cannot see the onward march of shopping centres owned by distant investors as a solution to local economic decline. For an economy to regenerate, there have to be spaces where ingenuity and invention can flourish, and I wonder how often that is possible in a privately owned, standardised town centre or shopping city? Are we facing a new era of domination by absentee landlords and business owners, when money is funnelled out of localities instead of circulating within them?

More than any other part of the UK, North East England needs to stop money leaking out. The region has the highest unemployment rate, 11.2% for October-December 2011. That’s more than one person in nine needing a job but not finding one.

Shopping: Enough is Enough!

The mega retailers which dominate our leisure hours and fill the airwaves with clever jingles – the familiar “every little helps” from Tesco, “live well for less” from Sainsbury’s, “saving you money every day” from ASDA – must surely be offering us a good deal or their superstore car parks would be empty? Or are we merely responding to expensive advertising?

Superstores can be stressful places, with their excess of choice, their queues and the rush to pack the groceries while the next in line fidgets, waiting for you to move on.  They are not public space, but private places from which you can be ejected at any time. You have no right to be there, unless you have money and are spending it.

The jingles try to convince us that superstores are there entirely for our convenience, that they are dedicated to our quest for household thrift. Superstores are there for their owners, of course. In the case of the Co-operative stores, that’s all of us who are members.  For the food chain Waitrose, it is its own staff and those of parent retailer John Lewis, which is a worker-owned partnership. Who owns J Sainsbury, though? Qatar Holding LLC, investment arm of the super-rich Gulf state, controls more than a quarter, 25.99%, of shareholders’ equity. At Tesco, more than an eighth of the equity is in the hands of three institutional investors: BlackRock Inc (USA), Legal & General Group (UK) and Berkshire Hathaway Inc (USA). BlackRock Inc is also the leading investor in Wm Morrison Supermarkets, holding over 10% of equity. In excess of 26% more is in the hands of six institutional investors. ASDA is wholly owned by the American giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world’s largest retailer, which counts numerous financial institutions among its shareholders.

For the institutional shareholders, profits are more important than the impact superstores have on local economies, and we know that superstore saturation has a deeply damaging impact on small local retailers and their suppliers, and that they do not increase the total number of jobs, merely substitute some mainly part-time jobs for those lost in the businesses forced to downsize or close. And do we want to become a nation of shelf-stackers? That won’t worry the superstore shareholders, as long as the profits roll in.

Perhaps we should be asking, loudly, exactly how superstores benefit our culture , society and economy, and if we don’t like the answers, we can work out what to do about it.