Tuesday, 20 December 2011


I see that Mary Portas has been doing some more PR legwork for the government and has waved the white flag of surrender by saying that supermarkets should be forced to build in town centres. I imagine that the residents of Arlington House who are campaigning against plans to build a Tesco superstore on their doorstep will be beside themselves with annoyance.

Mary Portas did have some kind words to say about Margate Old Town, and admittedly there are a handful of constructive suggestions in her report, but the suggestion that High Streets will be reinvigorated by forcing the likes of Tesco to build more stores in town centres and discouraging out-of-town hubs is pure lunacy. Does the report make mention of the fact that a Parliamentary briefing paper from last month called Supermarkets: Competition Enquiries into the Groceries Market acknowledged that “many critics have argued that the supermarkets have exploited their dominant market position in a way that is contrary to the public interest”?

Is it so hard for people to see that giving supermarkets and chain stores the nod to set up stall in our town centres like Mary Portas suggests may end up further crushing local competition and will have a negative impact on small businesses and independent traders? Here was me thinking part of the problem with High Streets was the rise of Clone Town Britain where, as the New Economics Foundation states, “real local shops have been replaced by swathes of identikit chain stores that seem to spread like economic weeds, making high streets up and down the country virtually indistinguishable from one another.” Does Mary Portas not see anything inherently wrong with this? Clearly not.

Then again, maybe it's got something to do with the fact that Mary Portas had a small role to play in the downfall of the British High Street given her track record with chain stores such as Oasis, Clarks and Louis Vuitton in helping with the development of Westfield Shopping Centre. “Not only is Portas promoting the very clone stores she's supposed to be preventing,” said PR blogger Simon Francis, “she's a champion of the shopping centres which are destroying the high streets.” So, Mary Portas has worked on behalf of big shopping centres and chain stores in the past, and now she's calling for us to roll over and let big supermarkets tickle our bellies? Funny thing that.

Something that bugs me is the suggestion that it is only Labour Party supporters who oppose or have antipathy towards the development of a Tesco superstore near Arlington House. Sure, it's a safe bet that the allure of private sector expansionism and the promise of more jobs is tempting enough to make a Conservative Party member drool and give Tesco the thumbs-up. But what is it that makes people think that those on the Right won't oppose such plans made by Tesco? Is it really only those on the Left who sway towards being anti-corporate and willing to challenge supermarket chains?

Let's remember for a moment that the Conservative Party contains many right-wing libertarians. Traditionally, they're the ones who are likely to champion the private sector by calling for a smaller state and demanding more privatisation and less government intervention. The late ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens who died recently of oesophageal cancer once said: “I find libertarians more worried about the over-mighty state than the unaccountable corporation.” So, tell me this, what is it about the power of the state which so repulses these libertarians, but when it comes the power of Tesco, they remain strangely silent?

Is there anyone on the Right who opposes the runaway expansion of corporate monopolies like the big four supermarket chains? After all, since most corporations are only accountable to shareholders, you'd think that if right-wingers value the concept of democracy they'd be willing to challenge the status quo, but alas, there seems to be few who are willing to poke their heads above the parapet. Funnily enough, however, as I was searching, I found this quote:

“All corporatism - even when practised in societies where hard work, enterprise and cooperation are as highly valued as in Korea - encourages inflexibility, discourages individual accountability, and risks magnifying errors by concealing them.”
Margaret Thatcher, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, pg. 121

Yes, that's right – Maggie Thatcher. It seems that old Madge – icon of free market fundamentalists and right-wing libertarians alike – wasn't particularly enamoured with corporatism. Obviously, I have no idea how she feels about the rise of this particular cabal of supermarket chains we call the 'Big Four', but surely her words suggest that being sceptical about corporate power is not wholly the domain of the Left? So why is it only Labour Party supporters who get lumped into the anti-corporate box? Why aren't Conservative Party supporters equally capable of seeing how the disproportionate power of supermarkets unjustly distorts the market in a way which undermines local entrepreneurship? Is that so much to ask?


  1. Luke, you are right about one thing. Tescos only cares about Tescos and Mary Portas only cares about Mary Portas, she has probably forgotten where Margate is, this week.

  2. Love 'em or hate 'em, superstores are a part of modern life. People like them, & they're not going away. So surely it's the lesser of two evils to have them in (or near) our town centres where there's other shops rather than in remote locations that takes shoppers away from towns completely?

  3. Tesco, town centre maybe but not on our sea front. All this about Arlington has meant that the one being built in Westbrook seems to have snuck under the radar. Next there will be a sign on the Canterbury bridge "Welcome to Tescoville".

  4. Spot on Luke, and don't forget that Thatch was rather unceremoniously ousted from office when she started dragging her feet on British involvement with the corporate EU.

    We should forget this left-right ping-pong though Luke. This game is not about left versus right, although it is encouraging to see the tory electorate waking up to the fact that they've been scammed and begin making some noise.

    But I digress... no, this thing is about right versus wrong, good against evil, the 99% versus the 1%.

    Or perhaps, more dramatically; it is about humanity defending itself from the corporate banking elite.

  5. Good post, Luke. One thing to remember as key to understanding the Tesco Arlington proposal is that it is classed as an edge of town development. Because it is not in the centre they have not been required to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment. TDC correspondence with Freshwater show that they were troubled by how to resolve the issue of proving that shoppers would make linked trips to Margate High Street. They acknowledge the barrier to this of the poor perception of the area between Arlington and the High Street. TDC were concerned that Freshwater resolve this as linked trips were key to the passing of this size of store given the high vacancy rates of Margate High Street. It is safe to say that if Tesco was made to open a store in the town centre it would be much smaller and would have less impact on existing traders. But that said, TDC happily swap to calling the development a 'seafront' development when they are issuing press releases. Very naughty given the higher level of controls that Tesco would have to undertake if it was a seafront store on paper. Of course, we know it is the seafront.

  6. If an estate agents advertised a home as a "seafront property" then the chances are you'd feel very misled if when you viewed it you found it was actually hidden behind a 180 foot tower block & the sea / beach couldn't be seen from the door or windows...

    It is no more "on the seafront" than the Tesco on Broadstairs High Street.

    I wonder if Tony Flaig has changed his opinion after admitting going to Tesco to buy his fruit & veg (ironically the one thing cheaper in smaller stores)?

  7. In defence of Tony, I don’t think my views are strictly about being anti-Tesco or, indeed, anti-supermarkets. Being on a low income myself it's hard to avoid shopping in Asda or Tesco on account of the fact that the food is far cheaper than shopping in, say, Waitrose or M&S. Supermarkets have a function, I respect that, and I'm certainly not a snob when it comes to shopping.

    However, I equally don't think it's hypocritical to shop in supermarkets but at the same time criticize the ubiquity of the ‘Big Four’. My stance is built entirely on opposing the needless expansionism of bland corporate entities. If established chain stores want to set up out-of-town shopping centres, that’s fine, but leave town centres to be hubs for local entrepreneurship and nurtured to carve their own distinctive identity – that’s my logic.

    The Financial Times recently reported that “Britain’s big four supermarkets will open about 19m sq ft of new space between 2010 and 2014” and describes it as a ‘space race’. This level of growth is bordering on militaristic and is a clear example of how massive corporations are using their wealth and power to make the consumer experience soulless and homogenous. I certainly don’t think it’s very inspiring to have every town look identical, do you? Besides, Tesco already have plenty of local stores – they really don’t need to build more. I’d much rather see a community-run supermarket with affordable local produce instead, wouldn’t you?