Derek Jones considers the arguments engulfing many small Welsh towns over supermarket developments
It’s been an interesting few weeks for supermarkets in north Wales. Waitrose opened its first store in the region, taking over from the Cooperative in Menai Bridge. And a campaign to prevent the building of a supermarket of any stripe has been launched in Llangollen. Local residents are fearful that outline plans will scupper an already agreed proposal to develop a filling station and convenience store – incredibly enough, a town of 3,500 people situated on the A5, the home of the International Eisteddfod, has been without one for several years.
The history of supermarkets in north west Wales has not been altogether happy. Back in 2005, Asda/Wal-Mart applied for permission to build a store in the centre of Bangor. Tesco opposed the development. Gwynedd Council, judging that it would harm other town centre shops, turned down the proposal. Two months later, Tesco opened a hypermarket in outer Bangor, close to the A55. The ability of the global giant to work the planning system is well known. Meanwhile, Gwynedd must have had a change of heart; a large Marks and Spencer food market is now installed on the edge of Bangor cheek-by-jowl with Debenhams – and the economic decline of the town’s centre continues apace.
On the face of it, the choice of Menai Bridge for Waitrose’s first foray into north Wales is curious. Its nearest Waitrose neighbour is at Sandbach, south Cheshire, and it hardly seems economic for delivery lorries to have to travel at least another 100 miles to service just one supermarket. On the other hand, It will be a welcome enrichment to the retail economy of the region, and maybe there is just a hint that if it all goes well, green Waitrose signs will sprout elsewhere.
On the other hand, Sainsbury’s seems to have given up on north Wales years ago. Wrexham and Rhyl alone hold the fort (incidentally, they are also very thin on the ground in Scotland). So in the main Tesco have had the field to themselves, though Asda and Morrisons have not been slow to follow). Perhaps Sainsbury’s would like to explain their absence from, say, Deeside, Llandudno, Porthmadoc, Caernarfon and Aberystwyth.
Llangollen seems to belong among those who oppose supermarkets as such. There have been well over 100 local campaigns all over the country mostly against Tesco developments. Thus the coinage of the term Tescopoly, which is used as a term of abuse.
Some, like the one in Abergavenny, have centred on the physical inappropriateness of a development. The new Tesco there will be on the site of the cattle market which is being moved 10 miles out of town to Bryngwyn near Raglan. If other examples of Tesco architecture are followed, it will sit most uncomfortably with what has hitherto been a typical market town. Others – and this is the most commonly adduced argument against supermarket proposals – stress their economic and social effects. Small shops will not be able to compete, and will close down, the personal encounters and personal service which small shops provided will be lost, perhaps for ever.
Arguments of this sort are difficult to rebut, and we need studies to examine the extent to which the death of small shops is due to natural wastage, the general economic recession, poor marketing – or the arrival of a supermarket in their midst.
At Ruthin, 12 miles across the hill from Llangollen, there was considerable and vociferous opposition to Denbighshire’s decision to allow a Tesco development three years ago. Admittedly, there has been a considerable turnover of shops in the town, however, those most valued by local people – two butchers, a delicatessen, two pharmacies, and two bookshops – are still alive and kicking. Yet the town does now seem rather more quiet than one might like it to be, especially in winter.
I am not sure that Llangollen will ever be quiet! All the accoutrements of tourism, a steady stream of day trippers, winter and summer, the international eisteddfod, its fringe events and a number of other festivals from jazz to balloons, the art gallery and the museum, all contrive to prevent that happening. So there should be no fears on that score. I would fear for the future of the small Somerfield’s and the Spar, but surely the new service station and a new supermarket are not incompatible. And shouldn’t we all applaud a possible reduction of car journeys to Wrexham and Oswestry?
A final cautionary tale. The people of Sheringham, Norfolk, have campaigned against the coming of Tesco to their town for some 14 years, and finally, in early March, their objections were upheld. Instead, a Greenhouse Community Project was given permission to develop an ecologically driven new supermarket. No sooner had the North Norfolk Council made their decision than the Greenhouse announced an alliance with Waitrose to bring their plans to fruition. Perhaps Llangollen will, after all the shouting is over, play host to the first Waitrose in north East Wales.