The Supermarket Economy

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Supermarkets, by which I define as warehouses selling and sign-posting everything a typical High Street might have previously provided, may have a useful role and function within an urban location.  It might be that the population pressure demands the supply, products, and access which can only be provided by the logistical prowess of a commercial giant.  I’m not persuaded it is necessarily so but the case for this approach for small conurbations, and especially for rural areas is profoundly flawed.  For what remains of the traditional English market towns, such a proposition undermines principles of local food production and promotion of traditional heritage.  This most visible disjoint is failure to meaningfully engage with community events, and facilitate the promotion and growth of the producers and makers who once upon a time identified the town.

In Wisbech, with supermarket developments encircling what still professes to be an aspiration to be a market town, there seems to be an obvious contradiction with the notion of promoting the town’s heritage against Council strategy to surrender economic planning to corporate enterprise alone.  The local Tories feel no embarrassment in publicly talking up one, whilst quietly undermining it within committee rooms.  Opposition politics has almost totally failed to challenge these grounds despite the obvious impact on the High streets and markets throughout the towns of The Fens.  A notable exception has been the recent debate surrounding the provision of free car parking – but this illustrates that if the public and properly engaged – and politicians made to account for their decisions – they will make the right decisions.

Supermarket bashing is in vogue.  It would seen that a lasting legacy of the recession has been the realisation that the so-called deals and cheap prices were not quite what they presented to be – the big supermarkets have been exposed by the discount players.  However, in main the criticisms are responses to the behaviour of the supermarkets; and what are often clumsy and aggressive local campaigns to promote often unwanted developments.  They set up in direct opposition to local stores, even setting up as local stores.  They will set unrealistic and unsustainable pricing for long term competitive gain – how can the supply chain sell and profit at 4 pints of milk for £1?  There is continuing evidence of bullying suppliers  farmers and growers and too often an impact on incomes, pay and conditions of overseas and local labour.  The personal consequences can be devastating for producers, with record numbers of farmers affected by mental health problems and at it’s most extreme even increased rates of suicide.

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A significant local issued is the need to recruit high numbers of migrant labourers, mostly employed on low wages in exchange for low skilled work.  The supermarkets again fail to take proper responsibility for the impact of their strategy, and invest insufficiently to ensure that workers are properly trained, paid and safe within environments where they seem to apply only the measure of low cost as a metric.  There can be no excusing the tolerance of criminal elements although by design much of it’s application in the provision of modern day slavery will be through stealth.  Equally many will simply be turning a blind eye, but the supermarkets should not just be morally but legally accountable for ensuring that their providers meet legal as well as any corporate standards they set.  The poor conditions, the abuse of migrants, is only one impact – for towns such as Wisbech the consequences have also been on housing and the provision of public services especially health and education.  In The Fens, in all rural settings especially, we should be looking to renew the links with farming not seeking to reduce it to a strategy or a means of delivery, it has and should always hold a heritage and cultural value too.

The corporates benefit from paying low wages for their staff, let us not discount the extra profit gleamed from the supply chain either – and yet they make no additional contribution to the financial and social costs from applying (ceding?) to their economic model.  Of course, the new developments are “sold” to the voters as a means of providing new jobs, which should be at the centre of any economic plan.  However, you must also take into account the value of the jobs, and what the overall cost will be to the community.  In the case of the superstores many of the jobs are part-time, and vast majority remain low-paid.  A report by the Fair Pay Network (FPN) – a coalition of charities and non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress – says hundreds of thousands of workers at Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons are not paid the living wage .  This impacts on the lives of the worker and their families directly, but also means that any shortfall may be made up by increase in social funding for those same families – tax payers not only buying from the supermarkets but subsidising their low wages too whilst they continue to take profits.

The failure to properly check overseas supply has also caused significant environmental damage overseas, but increasingly people are waking up to the damage being done in our “green and pleasant land” as huge developments appear on virgin ground whilst town centres and brown field sites remain neglected.  Even those supermarkets who claim to act responsibly will sell “out of season” fresh produce without any surcharge to the customer.  We are living in an age when environmental concerns should be paramount in all our political and economic decision-making and yet our largest and most successful ventures profit by importing food from all corners of the earth, including parts which are unable to provide sufficient fresh food for their own populations.  One of the key “tools” employed is BOGOF, of which the outcome is usually significant waste and therefore cost to the consumer – when actually we save money by only buying what we intend to use.  This is not an attack of freedom, but if you wish to buy water from Fuji or prawns from Java Sea then you should pay the actual price.

The big four hold considerable influence at all levels of government.  In Fenland the embarrassment of #SupermarketGate fiasco and more recently Tesco’s decision to “mothball” a new store at Chatteris highlights the risks and failure of a weak administration against the legal machinery of the corporates.  This Council actively courted these same ventures as a central plank of their economic planning highlighted further the vulnerability of our democracy.  Endless investigations and reviews by Government fail to nail down the spectre of cartels, and yet despite an apparent endless price war there remain incredible profits made whilst prices continue to increase for families.  Incredible to see politicians scrabbling to criticise the very same people they were clutching tightly to just months ago.  As I write above it is a dichotomy that Fenland District Council promotes the market towns of the Fens at the same time as enthusiastically pursuing the building of supermarkets, and critically failing to invest in the market places and High Streets in any meaningful way.  Sadly, the Conservative administration will feel vindicated as they continue to receive the support of voters but I wonder whether there is a tipping point being arrived at.  Are we content to see our town centres handed over to residential property, and to lose any sign of our identification?  I think we should value our heritage, and protect the very best of our producers and produce.  I chose to in a market town not a clone town.

What does it say to you that in the psychological war on the consumer Supermarkets employ architects to build stores which look like marketplaces inside and out, they spend millions each year on promotions persuading you they have “market streets” and talk of fresh food and produce – why don’t we just use the real thing?  This is not about the past, there is no return to a golden age but about looking forward to a new one.  It is about recognising and promoting what is good.  We know this to be true because the supermarkets themselves use every trick they can to emulate the things which we know to be true – from the design of their stores to reflect town hall facades right up to the naming of aisles as “market street” and promoting butchers, bakers and fishmongers – I would venture why not simply choose the real thing? Rather it is the proposition of a supermarket which is out of time; increasingly failing to meet customer needs, constantly drawn into crisis and scandal, not matching the social and environmental agenda that is necessary.

norwich-marketWhen we look at what a market town should provide it must be done with all of the infrastructure and technological support available, and it is this reluctance for the deployment of innovation and long-term planning, which leads the lazy politicians into the arms of the corporates.  The money will invest but with an eye to the profit not to the widest benefit to the community, so traffic lights for the junction with their new car park but not a new roundabout for the extra traffic being pulled into the outskirts of town.

We need political leadership which will encourage and promote independent traders, invest in town infrastructure and celebrate authentic local food and produce – it is an essential part of a town’s identity.  An incredible 95% of money spend in supermarkets leaves the town – it should be going to local businesses and supporting sustainable growth.  Let’s use the people, the creativity and the local produce to make the centre of our towns special.  Let us re-build the crumbling buildings, and open up to the community and the entrepreneurs’ opportunities….above all else let’s have a vision.  Sustainable, ethical and local should be the way we shop, as it is desirable for us to live, both for today and tomorrow.

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