Large supermarkets are the physical embodiment of consumer capitalism’s contradictions. Entranced by the glittering display of goodies on offer we wander spellbound through their aisles. Close to main roads, convenient for parking, everything under one roof, supermarkets are utopia. Here is the apparent ultimate goal of millennia of human evolution – the new opium of the masses, the cathedrals of consumerism.
Yet supermarkets have their hidden side. Their sheen turns out to hide a tawdrier reality of low paid staff, exploited farmers and producers, particularly in the global south, surveillance methods that make the Metropolitan Police look like amateurs, cynical advertising manipulation and culpability for climate change. They are basically just mammoth machines for extracting profit out of our child-like desires.
The effect of the economic recession on the supermarkets has been a bit like poking a hornets’ nest with a stick. As small shops go under in their hundreds, the supermarkets, which have already expanded their floor space in Cornwall by two thirds in just a decade, seize the opportunity to mop up the remaining market.
A Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions study of 1998 – The Impact of Large Foodstores on Market Towns and District Centres – found that large edge of town and out of town stores led to falls of between 13% and 50% in town centre trade, to growing numbers of vacant shops and to a ‘noticeable deterioration of the built environment of the town centre’. ‘Smaller centres’ were the most vulnerable.
In Cornwall all our towns are ‘smaller centres’ and thus vulnerable to large stores sucking out their lifeblood. Yet, ignoring its own report of 1998, an increasingly market oriented and inept Labour Government in 2007 moved to make building out of town stores even easier.
The most active predator in Cornwall is Sainsburys, which considers itself ‘under-represented’. It gained outline permission in May of this year for a massive 50,000 square foot store at Helston on the site of one of Flambards’ overflow car parks. To obtain this it used its economic strength to bribe planners through promising to contribute to the costs of a ‘town centre manager’. This must rank as some sort of sick joke as whoever grasps this nettle will have their work cut out as they ‘manage’ the inevitable decline of the town centre caused by the growth of edge of town supermarkets.
Meanwhile Tescos, who had seen their plan to replace their own store at Helston with one that was twice the size rejected in July 2008, promptly re-submitted their plans. These were approved at the end of the year.
Sainsburys have also offered to buy the former North Cornwall District Council offices at Wadebridge. Their plan is to demolish this building (less than 20 years old) and build a supermarket. Their exhibition in September, which triggered an official complaint about misleading presentation of the results of a shoppers survey, relentlessly dangled the ‘more choice and better quality food retail offering’ in front of the people of Wadebridge. Nonetheless, the latter seem distinctly under-whelmed by these enticements at the moment.
Sainsburys have also been reported to be considering the site of the former Caradon Council offices at Luxstowe, Liskeard. Was the otherwise inexplicable London Labour and Truro Lib Dems’ abolition of representative local government in Cornwall actually just about selling off public assets to the grocers then? Meanwhile, Sainsburys are the prime movers in plans for a supermarket at Loggans Moor, Hayle. With Asda also in the running here and Morrisons among those queueing up to build a further supermarket at the other end of Hayle the writing is on the wall for the existing relatively healthy town centre.
But protestors at Hayle and Wadebridge, where Morrisons are also prowling about, can take some heart. These gargantuan grocers don’t always get their own way. A plan by Sainsburys in January 2008 to build at the Kimberley Stadium at Saltash, using their vast resources to pay for a new ground for the football club, was successfully blocked by a vigorous campaign and intense lobbying of Caradon District Council.
Hopefully, in time these businesses will be seen as what they are – voracious dinosaurs trampling over local centres but ultimately unsustainable in the low carbon economy that will be essential for our survival. For the time being their destructive foraging habits – and Tescos is planning a huge expansion of its already large Holmbush store outside St Austell – must be resisted.
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