This morning Derby City Council was reported as calling for a tax of up to £400 million to be imposed on the larger supermarkets, the money to be spent on regenerating the town centres which have suffered so badly as a result of supermarket expansion. Such a scheme, known as the Tesco tax, already operates in Scotland and the North of Ireland. Not unexpectedly, supermarkets claim that such a scheme would backfire on poorer shoppers as it would force supermarkets to raise prices to cover the cost of the tax – and that the funds raised would just disappear into the gaping maw of local authority coffers and not actually get spent on town centre regeneration. Pass…
Like most of us, I find myself running with the hares and hunting with the hounds over supermarkets. Yes, of course I do use them – they are massively convenient. Even more so since they started delivering to my door rather than me having to slog around them. And certainly with my ‘freefrom’ hat on, the major supermarkets have been, and remain, very major players in the growth of freefrom in the UK. Moreover supermarket sponsorship has been extremely helpful in allowing us to develop the FreeFrom Food Awards to the point where they can play a significant role in the growth of the sector. But – and it is a big but…
Along with many others I do believe that the supermarkets are too big and too powerful – and that for all of the excellent intentions of many of those who work for them, the companies’ underlying motive remains profit, whether or not that profit comes at the expense of their suppliers, the health of their customers, or the health of their local environments.
As Professor Capewell pointed out at the FABResearch conference last week, ten multinational companies manufacture 90% of the ultra processed foods which have caused the current obesity/diabetes epidemic – but where are those ultra processed foods sold? The vast majority of them are sold through the supermarkets. And yes, manufacturers struggle to get supermarket listings, but how many tales have we all heard of manufacturers being screwed down to un-livable-with margins or being dropped like a stone with no warning if sales are down or a competitor offers a better deal.
And what of the lived-in environment? The reason why Derby City Council wants to tax them is because they believe, entirely rightly, that massive out of town supermarket complexes and high street supermarket ‘locals’ and ‘expresses’ have driven independent retailers out of business and desert-ified local town centres. And are continuing to do so. Indeed, see the tale of Sainsbury’s and South End Green, resolved, at least temporarily, only days ago.
Our local village is South End Green, running from the war memorial to Hampstead Heath station at the southern end of Hampstead Heath. Just up from the war memorial is the Royal Free Hospital and just opposite the war memorial used to be a Classic cinema, one of the oldest in the country although sadly run down.
Around ten years ago the whole of the cinema side of the green was redeveloped into residential property and a sizeable Marks and Spencers ‘Simply food’ appeared on ground level. Not welcomed by many residents (and still boycotted by this one!) but understandable, given the huge itinerant population of the hospital, and relatively little threat to the existing traders as the majority of what they sell is ready meals.
However, six weeks or so ago the word got out that Sainsbury’s were doing a deal with Dorringtons, the freeholders of the parade of shops opposite the station, to replace four of them with a new Sainsbury’s ‘Local’. The shops concerned were a very popular owner-run local café, a stationers, a florist and a charity shop. The new Sainsbury’s would have been located next door to a local Londis that has been trading in South End Green for at least 20 years and whose trade it would have killed stone dead.
Local residents were up in arms. Despite the M&S, South End Green remains very much a village with local shops serving the local community – and that is how they wanted it to stay. So we all signed on line petitions, organised meetings and protests, wrote letters and sent emails to both the freeholders and Sainsbury’s and talked at length to any media that would listen. And, I am delighted to say, Sainsbury’s has withdrawn their proposal. So what am I complaining about?
I am complaining because Sainsbury’s are insisting that local feeling had nothing to do with their decision to withdraw; the scheme collapsed because the freeholders could not find suitable premises to which to relocate the existing shop tenants. And that they ‘will continue to look for suitable opportunities to open in the area’.
Sainsbury’s have a great history and do a good job. I don’t have a problem with their bigger stores when located in a suitable spot (such as the O2 centre in Finchley Road) or even with their ‘Locals’ when they are located in a suitable spot (such as Camden High Street, or Kingsway or Tottenham Court Road) but leave our villages alone. God knows there are few enough of them left so let us keep the few that we have!
So what good that £400 million tax? Taxation rarely gives birth to civic conscience and that is what we really need them to develop.