Shop around for diverse high streets while you still can
Any prospect of the revival of our high streets was dealt a fatal blow by last week’s Competition Commission (CC) inquiry report. Yet the importance of this key policy statement was overlooked – obscured by the issue of Tesco and its dominance over other big supermarkets.
The commission’s inquiry into the grocery market comes hot on the heels of the Barker review into the planning system and shortly before a new white paper on planning, due out in March. Taken together, it is clear that Barker, the CC and the white paper are all moving towards the same ends, which is the virtual end of the small independent shops that are the glue and lifeblood of our communities and the only guarantee of diversity and local identity in our villages, towns and cities.
Barker has already recommended that planning rules be relaxed to enable greater competition between the big retailers in town centres. Now all the indications are that the CC will back this up, with the report stating definitively that, according to its inquiry so far, it believes larger grocery stores are an effective substitute for smaller stores.
The New Economics Foundation says it is ‘a triple whammy, a three-pronged, free market, ideologically driven assault on the planning system’. The result is almost certain to be a white paper setting in motion legislation to cast these recommendations in stone.
Part of the problem is that while the Barker review received only limited attention, the link between the CC and the nature of our high streets and communities has also been overlooked. In many quarters, the CC inquiry is also wrongly interpreted as looking to safeguard choice and competition throughout the retail sector, including small independent shops.
This is far from the case, simply because the narrow remit of the inquiry means the commission is only interested in issues of competition among the main players. So while the dominance of Tesco, to the detriment of the other supermarkets, is a major concern, the future of small shops is beyond its remit.
To make matters worse, because the aim of the inquiry is to increase competition among the main players, the small independents are likely to go to the wall entirely as they lose what little protection the planning system still gives them.
The CC makes no bones about this, citing evidence from the Rural Shops Alliance that the ‘expansion of grocery superstores and the potential loss of village stores will be devastating in social terms to the communities they serve’. But it goes on to indicate, that in such cases, ‘the evidence submitted to us bears on issues beyond competition’, and that ‘these are not things that we have the power to investigate or resolve’. Which begs the question: if it does not, who does?
The aim of this inquiry and the Barker review is to increase competition and keep prices and inflation down. In the process, the enormous social and environmental costs, which impact hugely on the economy and on our quality of life, are entirely disregarded.
· Anna Minton is a writer and journalist.