The battle for Britain’s high street

The battle for Britain’s high street

There’s a new political battleground. While politicians once argued about who could be toughest on crime, now they wrangle over how tough they can be on supermarket monopolies.

Supermarkets are an important feature of the high street, but things could get tough when the localism bill becomes law. Labour leader Ed Miliband kicked off the debate, stating that local people had “no power against big corporations in this country”. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg followed with a rallying call that it was “time to take on the supermarkets”. The prime minister himself responded by signing up television retail guru Mary Portas to lead a government review on the state of Britain’s high streets.

It is hard not to feel that neutrality went out the window with this appointment. Portas is a self-declared supermarket cynic, so we shouldn’t hold out too much hope for an impartial review.

Newspapers have, of course, fanned the flames. “Destroyed”, “decimated” and “ruined” are among the colourful terms used by the press to describe the state of Britain’s high streets. Such language is insulting to local residents, and also falls back on a misty-eyed view of what towns used to be like in the “good old days”.

High streets have always had to develop to meet people’s needs. The emergence of supermarkets and express stores is just the latest example of this transformation. Yet the way politicians and the media criticise them, you might think that consumers were physically forced to shop there.

The reality is that shops, like any other businesses, must meet the needs of their market or fail. In 2011 many people are time-short, overworked and needing to tighten their budgets. Supermarkets offer an answer to all these pressures. They provide convenient after-hours shopping, close to people’s homes or on the way back from work. And they offer consumers good value for money – something welcomed by the government’s own Competition Commission report in 2008 – which is more important when incomes are being squeezed.

Consumers are voting with their shopping baskets and trolleys as any visit demonstrates. Politicians who engage in supermarket bashing are ignoring popular opinion. They should be careful, too, not to upset local communities who value the jobs and training on offer in areas where both may be in short supply.

This vendetta against the supermarket also makes a mockery of the government’s decision to create an environment where successful businesses can expand and thrive. The chancellor’s recent budget contained a number of sweeteners for the property sector, calling for councils to have a presumption in favour of growth. He would be wise to stick up for supermarkets – one of our most successful sectors – when he speaks to local community groups.

Life could soon get even harder for supermarkets, once the localism bill becomes law. The bill has the well-intentioned aim of giving local people more say over developments in their communities. The danger is that the vocal, well-organised minority will claim to speak for the community.

That was certainly the case in Sheringham, the scene of a long-running planning saga over whether or not the north Norfolk town should have a supermarket. For years, the anti-supermarket campaigners successfully painted themselves as representing local people. It was only when they overplayed their hand and called a public vote, that local people in their hundreds made clear they wanted the same convenient, good value shopping that consumers in towns up and down the country already enjoyed.

Supermarkets are successful because they offer a service that millions of shoppers want; they should not be shy in mobilising this support.

This article first appeared in the Guardian local government network blog here.

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