High Footfall, Low Turn-out

Rhys David argues that it is not only local businesses which suffer when supermarket giants move into small towns

Followers of George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner and academic, will know that two of his most recent targets have been Powys county council and local newspapers. Powys has been flayed for what Monbiot sees as its spineless refusal to reject an application by Tesco to build a superstore on the edge of Machynlleth where the writer lives, despite receiving 685 letters objecting to the proposal and only five in support. The decision also came in the face of a retail impact assessment commissioned by the council itself which said the new development will cause trade in the centre of the town to decline and generate longer and less sustainable shopping trips.

The local Cambrian News is similarly criticised for what Monbiot sees as slavish support of the council. On the basis that most local papers merely exist to amplify the voices of their proprietors and advertisers and other powerful people with whom they wish to stay on good terms, Monbiot argued earlier this month in The Guardian that the concern being widely expressed at the current round of closures affecting the regional press is misplaced and that the overwhelming majority are not worth saving.

It is for the local press to make their own defence against an argument, which, while it may seem extreme, undoubtedly does have some truth in it. By and large most local newspapers, including sadly some of their rather bigger colleagues, are now bland, written by skeleton staffs, relying on safe stories all too often culled from press releases and printed largely unaltered. Old disciplines such as including statements from those who might take an alternative view have largely been abandoned.

Monbiot’s real target, however, is neither the local council nor the press but the supermarket giant Tesco, with its 30 per cent plus share of the UK grocery market. In the case of Machynlleth, supporters of the proposal can point to a number of benefits – the jobs that will be created, the wider choice of foodstuffs that will be available to consumers, the non-food products that will be on sale without the need to travel to a bigger district centre such as Aberystwyth, Shrewsbury or Chester.

Against this, however, there is the negative impact, to the usual list of which a new downside has just been highlighted. Conventionally, the case against Tesco in a small town like Machynlleth is that its sales of probably hundreds of thousand pounds a year can hardly be new money to the area. Though some people will no longer travel long distances to shop, much of Tesco’s revenue has to be at the expense of the local butcher, baker, convenience store and coffee shop. Supermarkets also now often incorporate a range of other services, such as dry cleaning, and Tesco itself is planning to open Tesco Bank branches in stores, having decided it would not take its new banking subsidiary to the dying High Street.

The new downside is revealed in a publication by Earthscan and the New Economics Foundation, and should worry all those who believe civic society in Wales (and Britain) has already lost too much of its vigour and is seeing it continue to drain away. A study in the US of links between WalMart (the world’s biggest supermarket group and owner of Asda, Britain’s number two behind Tesco) and social capital has apparently demonstrated that turn-out at elections declines when there is a nearby superstore. The study also showed that communities where Walmart had settled ended up with fewer local charities and local associations such as churches, campaign and business groups per capita than those that did not.

The reasons why this happens can only be guessed at. Presumably, however, if local businesses close there are fewer business owners to support local causes, sponsor local clubs and sports teams and take on community leadership roles. The money being circulated in the local area also drops as the profits which would previously have been spent locally are spirited away to corporate headquarters, and only partially replaced by whatever ‘community engagement projects’ the interloping company sets up.

There are probably other less tangible explanations. The conversations someone might have with the person behind or in front of them in the butcher’s – or with the butcher himself – will not be replicated while watching the supermarket check-out person bleeping goods over the barcoder and while frantically trying to pull apart the store plastic bag for packing one’s goods. Nor does one seem as likely to stop for a chat with acquaintances in the supermarket aisle as in the High Street. Yet these opportunities for exchanging information – which still exist in large parts of the Continent and particularly in rural areas like Machynlleth – do form a kind of community adhesive that has largely disappeared in Britain.

It is impossible to put this particular genie back in the bottle. Tesco towns have sprung up all over Wales in the last few years and Powys council for one does not want to take a stand in Machynlleth. However, the authority that did might find its medium and long term gains far more than outweigh the immediate prospects of extra ‘jobs’.

A former Financial Times journalist, Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA.

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