Not my most elegant title, I think you’ll agree. But today I don’t feel elegant. I feel angry. Very, very angry. So much so that a couple of hours ago I found myself starting an argument with a complete stranger whilst doing the Good Friday shop in my local town of Shipston-on-Stour. I had been stopped by a lovely elderly lady with a placard around her neck who informed me that on the site of the old Norgren plant at the top of the hill a mile or so out of town, the council were planning to let a supermarket chain build a store. She was asking people to write to the council to lodge objections, and yet she could not tell me which supermarket chain it would be. In fact, when I later asked some of the local shopkeepers, none of them seemed to know either. Not only were these fundamental details unclear, but the council’s deadline for objections was 8th April, six days from today. And there was one, just one elderly lady standing outside the shops in the drizzle. Even the local Christians had a better turnout for their jolly crucifixion singalong in the main square. A local priest hugged a giant wooden cross, a group of thirty or so people warbled a hymn, and one woman was trying to muster enough support to prevent the town of Shipston from being eviscerated.
So when I saw her on my way back to the car and she was talking to a female punter she had stopped, I found myself wanting to offer some more support. I joined in. But the punter, it quickly became clear, was ignoring every single very good piece of evidence put to her about what will happen to Shipston if the development goes ahead. I gave the punter the statistics: that it only takes a shop to lose 15% of its business for that shop to go bust; that this is precisely the amount of profit a new supermarket will generally take from a small shop; that this has happened in town after town across the UK, and that I have seen it happen to my home town of Horwich.
When I was a kid, Horwich had a thriving high street with six butchers’ shops, three or more greengrocers’, a record shop run by a woman called Doreen who could order you just about anything, a quality wine merchant, a fine hardware shop, a card shop called ‘Fancy That,’ ‘The China Shop,’ ‘Casey’s Original Pie Shop’ and a good many more that I have now forgotten. Now, in 2010, there are just two butchers and one greengrocer left. All the others have gone or change hands every year or so. There are many ‘For Sale’ signs, empty shops, charity shops that used to sell food. No sign of the redoubtable Doreen: her wonderful emporium vanished long since. But within a mile or two there is a Lidl, and a little further away a gigantic Tesco’s. And Horwich itself looks tatty, bedraggled, defeated.
This is what will happen to Shipston. Give it five years and I predict we will lose at least one of the two butchers (both of which are excellent) and quite possibly the greengrocer’s, the deli. There are already four or five charity shops (some damage has been done by the small supermarkets already in Shipston itself). I await the arrival of a good few more.
I’m also waiting for someone to convince me that I live in a democracy, that there hasn’t already been what George Monbiot calls a ‘corporate takeover of Britain.’ OK, so we can change our government at the upcoming election, but we seemingly can’t use our local government to fight corporate power on our behalf. Local government is increasingly the agent of the supermarkets: they can’t afford to take on the might of these retail giants. A lengthy legal battle with Tesco’s could bankrupt any local authority that objected to a proposed store, as Monbiot outlines in his article on Tesco and Machynlleth (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/10/tesco-opted/).
So I will write my objections to the proposed store in time for the deadline of April 8th. I will argue with anyone and everyone on the streets of Shipston who says something stupid like ‘let’s give the supermarket a go.’ I will write angry and inelegant blogs on the subject for anyone who cares enough about Shipston, their own town or the state of our democracy. But I am left feeling as Monbiot does about Machynlleth: ‘ it’s only now, when I’m caught in the middle of it, that the full force of this injustice hits me. Like everyone else here I feel powerless, unstrung as I watch disaster unfold in slow motion.’ And make no mistake, this is a disaster, one that is no less important for being local and apparently small-scale.