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Lords of the Aisles (June 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Where the supermarkets win, the high street gets taken over by charity shops, estate agents and cheapo dealers


My parents, in their tenth decade, live in Melrose. Melrose is what the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland calls a ‘home town’ – good butchers, bakers, fish shop, greengrocery, wine merchants, ironmongers and (no coincidence) excellent small hotels and restaurants. Eighty per cent of the shops on its high street are independent; there's good public transport and plenty of car parking. Of how many Scots towns can this be said?

Fewer and fewer. Throughout Scotland the high street is under challenge from ‘edge of town’ shopping. One or another of the Big Four is poised to descend on numerous Scots towns, from Skye - presumably as Lord of the Aisles - to Kelso on the border, which still has the character of a provincial French town. Where the supermarkets win, the high street gets taken over by mobile phone offices, charity shops, estate agents, fast food outlets and cheapo dealers. ‘Rest and recreation’ moves in, with its terrible twin, Accident and Emergency (in short, drink and its consequences) and local commerce moves out.

Britain – unlike much of Europe – has gone for US-style retailing: not just the destruction of the ‘home town’ by the ‘clone town’ – the end of independent traders, but the swallowing of malls by megamalls. Gordon Brown used to praise the wonderful productivity of the USA. Much of this involved retail: what was called ‘Walmartyrdom’ in which suppliers and local stores were beaten down by giants using their monopoly power.

This affects the food supplied (see Joanna Blythman's well-documented study, Shopped): picked for market convenience, not for flavour – dull and often unripe, but sold through special offers. Is our collective binge-drink the result not just of cheap alcohol offers – in some outlets it's cheaper than water – but also of food that ought to be exciting, but often tastes of nothing much?

The supermarket is deeply dependent on food miles, by air and heavy lorry, and at the other end of the system, by the family car. Imagine the carbon footprint. Since 1984 there's been a drastic modal shift in shopping trips from public transport to car, and this has hit non-motorists – the young, the elderly and people on low incomes.

When a big supermarket is proposed, we are always told that hundreds of jobs will be created. But what sort of jobs? Will they be low-skill, low-wage and part-time? What happens to local service-sector jobs – in wholesaling, law, cleaning, transport, commercial travellers and accommodation for them? To Scottish-owned clothing chains like Mackays? To Scottish food-suppliers like Taypack potatoes of Inchture, under pressure from Asda?

In terms of tourism, which provides 10% 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 shop in supermarkets? And, within a few years, will they be able to do so, even should they wish? We are nearing peak oil, with prices probably north of $200 a barrel. In 1999, the barrel stood at $10. What will be left of the motor age in 20 years?

The important thing is to keep options open. The Scottish government wants a round table to discuss supermarket chains stocking Scottish-produced foodstuffs. Though ministers must ensure this isn't a purely nominal concession, which later becomes subject to a combination to reduce the prices paid to suppliers.

How much should the state intervene? Because in Germany it isn't just market forces that secure the survival of niche retailers (like the organic stores, the independent bookshops). There is intervention: a ministry for the Mittelstand, social insurance for market traders, a more restrictive approach to granting planning permission for big supermarkets, and limiting HGV trips at weekends. This is helped by – and helps – good public transport and town-centre parking, recycling depots, local breweries, vineyards, bottling plants.

Can't we have – and not just in Scotland – trials in which ‘home town’ is matched against ‘clone town’? The internal patterns of commerce and society within both can be measured, so that we can get a picture of the economic dynamics which hold communities together, or pull them apart. There isn't anything inevitable about what's happening. If we conduct an impartial investigation into the social and economic impact of large supermarkets on communities in comparison to other modes of retail, we will at least know what we might be letting ourselves in for.

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