So, Mary Portas, Queen of Shops, has been drafted in by Coalition ministers to lead an independent review into the state of British retailing.
Straightaway she has declared that she doesn’t much like Tesco and the rest of the supermarkets, who she says are killing off local high streets.
Ministers can’t claim to be surprised at this — Portas has been saying the same thing for some time. This Mary has a reputation for being quite contrary.
Sometimes I wonder if her abrasive manner distracts from the real issues. Talking about about the “faceless mute at the till” at Tesco just sounds offensive. And wrong, as far as I can see. I don’t shop at Tesco very often but when I do its checkout staff seem perfectly chatty — and, in the case of the Tesco Metro around the corner from me at home, a whole lot friendlier than the grumps in some of the independents on the same street. Sorry, but it’s true.
Which is not to say that the supermarkets aren’t utterly ruthless in the way they do business, or that they don’t screw over their suppliers, or that their centralised systems aren’t shamefully wasteful and environmentally unsustainable. They are and they do. And yes, the supermarkets use below-cost selling, manipulate the planning system and suck money out of local economies.
But with the exception of a few strongly contested cases the supermarkets are operating entirely within the law. They are each simply doing what any big corporation would do in their situation — because an ineffectual regulatory system allows them to ride roughshod over the public interest.
The supermarkets have sailed through two separate investigations by the Competition Commission; have been allowed to concoct a Code of Practice “that protects no-one but themselves” (Norman Baker, MP); and then buy up thousands of convenience stores to re-colonise the local high streets they left for dead 30 years ago. Doesn’t that suggest it is the ‘system’ that really needs investigating?
Two major reports — Clone Town Britain and High Street Britain 2015 — warn that Britain’s small shops, currently going under at the rate of 2,000 a year, will have almost vanished by the end of the decade. To stop the rot, politicians at both Government and local council level need to retake responsibility for our town centres and local high streets — and stop caving in to corporate interests and powerful lobby groups.
By Jim Manson
Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.