The Tesco Effect And 'Clone Town' Britain

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The 'Tesco effect' is a matter of serious concern for everyone, from the All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group to people on abandoned and insular housing estates. What is needed now is more thought for how the future could look, and what can best be done to serve the interests of consumers - and businesses and employees - across the board.

The MPs looking at supermarket dominance have, we gather, been quite clear that the future does not bode well. Leaks from the High Street Britain 2015 report suggest that food wholesalers and independent newsagents may soon be freezed out by supermarkets.

This debate is on-going, on this site and in many other places and is significant for us all - hence my returning to the theme yet again.

Contexts change over time
I do understand why people are concerned about supermarkets. There is a fear that supply chains will be / are being distorted, and that suppliers, especially small suppliers, will be squeezed out in favour of the big boys. Such concerns are both real and legitimate; though we must wait until the Office of Fair Trading reports back on its current enquiries before we come to clear conclusions about the current state of things.

And I'm sure, too, that the all-party parliamentary small shops group, which will issue its formal report on High Street Britain 2015 soon, is thinking hard about the future as well as the present and the past. Nonetheless, I am surprised at the apparent lack of debate (at least as reported in the press) in terms of some of the fundamentals of the issue.

Some basic questions for the future
Amongst the questions which come to my mind every time the 'Tesco effect' comes up as a topic are these:

1. Is it the role of local planning officers to offer 'protection' to small shop-keepers? And, if so, under what rationale, and do they have a framework in which to do it? (They may well have, but I'd be astonished if I'm the only person who doesn't know what it is.)

2. Is it reasonable to suppose that supply chains are strengthened when suppliers, especially small ones, collaborate - in of course legal ways? What work has been undertaken to establish vulnerabilities and strengths here?

3. What do we know about the ways that local independent traders can work together to protect their patch, and to offer a quality, forward-looking employment experience to local people?

4. Are there ways in which the energy and other resources put into transporting and other handling of goods - especially foodstuffs? - can be shared more overtly with the customer, so that the purchaser can choose 'environmentally friendly' products, as they might well prefer to in local markets?

5. Why is there so little debate about the socio-economic contexts of supermarkets? One size may well not fit all, despite the strength of e.g. the 'Clone Town' arguments coming from the new economics foundation and others. In run-down places supermarkets may well be the only employer in the whole area which is big enough to provide stable employment and proper training. In wealthier localtions there may be many other employers who can provide training and career routes for everyone who seeks these. Surely this context makes a difference to 'value-added' in terms of supermarkets? So what do we know about the 'career progressions' of supermarket workers in various contexts?

6. And finally, who is thinking about the appalling service provision gaps in housing estates throughout the country? In terms of supermarkets they may well be 'food deserts', but aren't there niches here for (social?) enterprises such as farmers' shops, local bread shops and all sorts? These are not necessarily day-dreams, they could with the right support (and security measures) actually happen; and they could also offer training in trades and retail to local people. So, again, what research has been done to test feasibility, and what work has been done to encourage such efforts?

The questions continue...
We could ask a lot more questions like this. There are indeed many issues about which we need to know more as the 'Tesco effect' is debated; but it would be good if such questions could be asked in the context of changes for the future, and of small trader / supplier empowerment, rather than sometimes simply because of nostalgia or of fear of the big supermarkets, whatever.

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Well, just two days later (7 Jan.) I read in The Guardian that Ken Livingstone is addressing some of these issues: http://www.guardian.co.uk/food/Story/0,2763,1681199,00.html.

Food miles and deserts, social enterprises and healthy eating all being taken care of in central London..... will be interesting to see how long it takes for discussion to come up about the connections between these issues and what I'd call a 'segmented' assessment of where supermarkets might be appropriate, and where they may not be.

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