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Local shopping - communities fight back
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice, 2010
Our High Streets are in danger. Long-established local traders are closing, unable to compete with the large out-of-town retailers. Shops are empty and boarded up, or turned into charity shops. The recession isn't helping. Imperceptibly, the vibrancy and community feel of our town centres seems to be ebbing away.
But perhaps the tide is turning. Communities are beginning to respond by reasserting the importance of local shopping. Campaigns against major supermarket developments are under way. Taking on the giant retailers isn't easy, but sometimes citizen power does manage to stop their developments.
At the same time, positive initiatives are demonstrating that small can be beautiful. The Farmers' Markets movement, for example, began in Britain in 1997 and - as we report below - now spreads across the country. Many towns (such as Richmond in Yorkshire , featured here) have created their own community-led regeneration bodies, designed to rebuild the local economy and support local business. Some towns have even created their own ‘currency', valid only in local outlets.
Of course, it's not a simple issue. Large supermarkets pull in the customers because they carry an enormous range of stock and (on basic items at least) are very competitive on price. Shopping in the old-fashioned way in the High Street may mean less choice, and it may cost more – but, according to advocates of local shopping, this could be a price worth paying if it brings greater social and environmental benefits to us all.
The superstores – the case against
Here are ten arguments sometimes used against Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrison and the other big supermarket chains
- Big stores drain the life blood from our traditional town centres
- Big stores create environmental problems (such as greater traffic problems)
- Big stores use energy unnecessarily, by shipping their goods around the country, and around the world
- Big stores are socially divisive: some people (perhaps because they are elderly or don't have private transport) can't get to their stores and have to shop elsewhere
- Big stores use their buying muscle to drive down producers' prices; small farmers are among those suffering
- Big stores don't stock local produce, such as locally grown apples or artisan cheeses
- Big stores buy cheap goods from foreign countries (such as China ), where workers may be exploited or environmental conditions may be poor
- Big stores won't necessarily sell small quantities of things, such as a single lamb chop: unhelpful, if you're living alone
- Big stores don't have to take responsibility for the wider social consequences when they choose to open a store in a new town
- Big stores separate us from food producers, making it hard for us to understand how the food we eat is grown and produced.
Of course, the supermarkets have their own arguments in response. They offer, they say, an astonishing range of goods which previous generations wouldn't have believed possible. They keep food affordable. They create jobs. And they are sensitive, they say, to public opinion and public taste – they now stock organic foods, for example.
There are, Colin Grant says, only two empty shops currently in Richmond , north Yorkshire . Not bad, he adds, and quite a change from back in 2001, when eighteen shops were shut and the town was reeling from the effects of Foot and Mouth. “Ten years ago we were pilloried in the press and written off as a failing town which was underperforming,” he adds. “Now we're seen as among the best market towns in the country. Last year we were awarded the accolade of Great Town of the Year”.
The transformation has not happened by accident. The key, according to Colin, was the creation of a local Partnership body, linking businesses, the local authority and others in the community who wanted to make a difference. The Partnership has now constituted itself as a locally-based charity, the Richmond Swale Valley Community Initiative, and as such is able to tap into funding opportunities from both the public sector and from grant-making trusts. At different times the Countryside Agency (now Natural England) and the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward have come forward to offer financial help.
Richmond is primarily a Georgian town, with most of the town centre buildings built around the year 1750. It's a great heritage, but it's one which was poorly exploited until recently – the central market place seemed run-down rather than boasting its architectural charms. That's changed. Small shopkeepers are eligible for heritage grants from the Community Initiative to help them improve the external appearance of their shops. There's been a real attention to detail: shop frontages are now increasingly painted in traditional Georgian colours, rather than in modern colours such as brilliant white. “You get a sense now of what the town would have been like in its Georgian heyday,” Colin says.
It's this approach which has helped pull in shoppers. Even the collapse of Woolworths last year, which initially created a large empty store in the heart of the town, has been overcome: the shop premises was quickly reoccupied.
The cost of the supermarket shop
Supermarket shopping is supposed to be cheaper (though we all know that it's easy to be tempted to buy enticing items you hadn't planned to get as you walk up and down the aisles). But sometimes getting to and from the supermarket may cost more than you think.
The AA produces a guide each year to the cost of running a private car, taking costs such as road tax, insurance, the cost of purchase, depreciation, breakdown cover and petrol into account.
According to the AA, a ten-mile round trip to your out-of-town supermarket will cost you £10.37 if you drive a middle-range petrol car (one that costs between £14000 and £22000 new) and if you do annual mileage of 5000 miles. The cost falls if you drive a very cheap super-mini and cover 10,000 miles a year, but the real of that ten-mile trip is still £4.03. So what does that equate to in terms of cat food special offers?
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