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Scottish Parliament Speech: Supermarkets (Economic and Social Impact) (May 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

My elderly parents, who are in their 10th decade, live in Melrose. Melrose is what the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland calls a home town, with good butchers and bakers, a fish shop, a greengrocery, wine merchants, ironmongers and, by no coincidence, excellent small hotels and restaurants. Eighty per cent of the shops on its High Street are independent. There is good public transport and plenty of car parking.Of how many Scots towns can that be said? Steadily fewer.

Throughout the country, the high street is under challenge from edge-of-town or even greenfield shopping. Where it wins, the high street gets taken over by mobile phone offices, charity shops, estate agents - at least up until now - fast-food outlets and cheapo dealers. Rest and recreation moves in, along with its twin, accident and emergency. Commerce moves out.

 

Unlike much of Europe, Britain has gone for United States-style retailing. There has not just been the destruction of the home town by the clone town and the end of the independent traders, there has been a swallowing up of the malls by the megamalls. Gordon Brown used to praise the wonderful productivity of the USA, much of which, the Financial Times tells us, involved retail - what was called "Wal-Martyrdom", in which suppliers and local stores were beaten down by giants using their monopoly power.

That affects the food that is supplied, as can be seen in Joanna Blythman's well-documented study, "Shopped". Food is picked for market convenience, not flavour. It is dull and often unripe, but it is sold through special offers, which we might refer to as binge shopping - people come back with loads of bargains that they never eat. Apparently we throw away 45 per cent of the food that we buy every week.

Is our collective binge drinking the result not just of cheap alcohol offers - it is cheaper than water in some outlets - but of the fact that food that ought to be exciting often tastes of nothing much?

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I commend Mr Coffey for that observation. Johnnie Walker, born in 1830, is still going nowhere in Kilmarnock, presumably. Mr Coffey can be assured that, through its wonderful systems of intelligence, Tesco will know that he mentioned it. Any time that we mention a supermarket in this place, the supermarkets react instantly. Tesco's intelligence service makes Minitruth in "1984" look like "Blue Peter".

The supermarket is deeply dependent on food miles as goods are transported by air or heavy lorry and, at the other end of the system, by the family car - imagine the carbon footprint. Since 1984, there has been a drastic modal shift for shopping trips from public transport or foot to car. That has hit non-motorists, the young, the elderly - a category for which I can now be considered to qualify - and people on low incomes.

When a big supermarket is proposed, we are always told that hundreds of jobs will be created. What sort of jobs will they be? Will they be low-skill, low-wage and part-time jobs? What happens to local service sector jobs in wholesaling, law, cleaning, transport and accommodation for commercial travellers? What happens to Scottish-owned clothing chains such as Mackays and Scottish food suppliers such as Taypack Potatoes of Inchture, which has just broken off its link with Asda because it feels that it will have its prices driven down further?

Tourism provides 10 per cent of our national income. People come to Scotland for the quality of our life and of our cities, towns and villages. Do they come to support supermarkets? Are they going to visit the lord of the isles in the Portree Tesco? Within a few years, will they be able to do so, even if they wish? We are nearing peak oil, north of $200 a barrel. In 1999, the cost of a barrel of oil was $10. What will be left of this motorised situation in 20 years?

The important thing is to keep options open, which is why I welcome the Government's round-table to discuss supermarket chains stocking Scottish-produced foodstuffs. However, ministers must ensure that that is not a purely nominal concession that becomes subject to a combination to reduce the prices paid to suppliers.

How much should the state intervene? It does so on the continent. In Germany, big retailers are handicapped by the prohibition on opening on Sundays and heavy goods vehicles cannot run on Sundays. Subsidies are paid to encourage organic stores and independent bookshops. There is intervention. There is a ministry for the Mittelstand; social insurance for market traders; and a more restrictive approach to granting planning permission for big supermarkets. That is helped by good public transport, town centre parking, recycling depots and local breweries, vineyards and bottling plants.

Cannot we have a trial in which we examine shopping locally, whereby home town is matched and analysed against clone town? The internal patterns of commerce and society within both could be measured, to enable us to get a picture of the economic dynamics that hold communities together or pull them apart.

There is nothing inevitable about what is happening. If we conduct an impartial investigation into the social and economic impact of large supermarkets on communities, in comparison with other modes of retail, we will at least know what we might be letting ourselves in for.

 
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