The death of diversity and ordinary distinctiveness

Once upon a time, not so long ago, people used to shop on foot in their local high street. They bought individual products from different retailers: screws from the hardware store, bread from the baker, meat from the butcher, fruit and veg from the greengrocer. This process developed an invisible web of community. Those days are gone. Instead, supermarkets reign supreme and they are aggressively expanding their offer of non-food goods.93 The one-stop shop only appears beneficial, however, because we think we are time-pressured and convenience-driven. The high streets, the malls and big box centres all look similar and to create distinctiveness they need to spice up the bland with 'total experiences'. There are gains and losses in this process.

We have lost the option of shopping at small, local, specialist shops and building relationships with owners. The link with supermarkets check-out staff is minimal. Fifty years ago in Britain, independents made up half of the market; now the figure is below 15 per cent. Between 1997 and 2002, 13,000 specialized shops -bookshops, hardware stores, butcher's, baker's, fishmonger's, chemist's, multipurpose corner shops, newsagent's, clothes shops, whatever specialism you care to think of - were lost. In 2004 alone, 2157 independents were lost. Overall that is nearly 50 per week. Add to this the branches of post offices, banks and building societies and the pubs and the figure doubles. Based on current trends, 33 per cent of local outlets will have shut between 1990 and 2010. These deep changes sound the death knell for local economies, and it is happening everywhere. The decline in neighbourhood shops and services breaks up the social fabric on the way and replaces it with large-scale, industrialized, corporate landscapes and relationships. Left behind are deserts where communities no longer have easy access to local shops and services; you get an increasing sense of multiplying ghost towns.94 The result is a bland, imitative shopping landscape of multiple retailers, fast-food chains and global fashion outlets. And the decline of local shops forces many to travel greater distances to do their shopping, even in the largest cities.

This process has insidious downstream side effects, affecting the system as a whole. As smaller shops close, the number of suppliers to small shops dwindles, leading to a Catch 22 situation. Without local suppliers, local retailers suffer; and when local retailers close, suppliers suffer as they become increasingly reliant on a handful of supermarket purchasers. These in turn hold them in a vice-like grip. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of UK farm workers fell by 100,000 as supply chains globalized. Supermarket chains are not interested in the 'real' economy and real costs of food miles. And the popularity of the new 'local' stores emerging under the big supermarket brand banners presents yet another threat to independent stores.95 Supermarkets and malls eviscerate the city.

A 2005 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Small Shops stated, 'Small and independent shops may vanish from the UK's high streets by as early as 2015 ... The erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the social glue that binds communities together.'96 The British Retail Consortium responded that the group was 'trying to turn the clock back'. And a Tesco spokesperson, seemingly quoting Britain's largest retailer's PR manual, delivered the rather ignorant statement, 'The consumer is the best regulator and there is room in a thriving market for anyone who satisfies customers.' How very ironic, then, that the US trade magazine Retail Traffic's issue on future trends in retailing in May 2003 cited recreating a sense of community as the key trend for the next decade. The retailing logic that tore quite resilient communities apart is now trying to put them together again in its own image and on its own terms.

Governments can only deal with wider issues of social exclusion, disadvantage and poverty if they understand that an economic system seen as 'natural' favours the large, the distant and the uniform. It damages diversity, choice, local economies and communities. Conversely, 'relocalizing' the economy empowers communities. It requires courage and tenacity to resist the lobbying capacity and media-savviness of the large retailing giants and to address the pressures of the wider economic forces head-on to create a balance between local and global economies. This requires understanding real economic value flows or local transaction analysis and distinguishing it from surface value.97 And this in turn means redefining what we understand and measure as progress and finding ways to make the invisible value of things - social, cultural and environmental values - visible.

The New Economics Foundation proposes measures to restore local communities and shopping cultures. These include:

• Local Communities Sustainability Bills. Based on a bottom-up philosophy, these bills would create a coherent framework for pro-local policies by giving local authorities, communities and citizens a powerful voice in planning their future to guarantee dynamic and environmentally sustainable local economies. In 2003 such a proposed bill got the support of 33 per cent of British MPs. The goal is a 'realignment of power between the forces driving ghost and clone towns and those seeking to build more healthy, vibrant and sustainable local economies'.

• Local competition policy. In France, the Royer and Raffarin laws have limited the development of new supermarkets over the past few years, requiring special approval for any proposed new retail store bigger than 300m2. This has guaranteed the

Blandness and


Italy and France have so far been able to resist the arguments, blandishments and pressures towards blandification coming from the large chains in the name of efficiency and progress. Many of their so-called restrictive planning guidelines are precisely those that are securing diversity and resisting what the French call 'la Londonization'.

Paris approved a Local Urbanism Plan in 2005 which seeks to encourage small shops and key workers to stay in the city. It seeks to sustain the economic, social and cultural ecology of Paris, not in a nostalgic way but to strengthen locality and diversity. Central Paris, with just over 2 million residents, is far livelier because it has a dense and varied network of shops and people. It wants to sustain the social balance that makes Paris what it is and not have a place with the rich on one side and the poor on the other.

It seeks to achieve this goal by influencing the market through regulation and incentives. To nurture la mixité sociale, a requirement for developers is to set aside 25 per cent of any project spanning more than 1000m2 for social housing apartments in districts where there is little at present. The majority of these will be reserved for key workers, such as teachers, nurses, council employees and shopkeepers, who are rapidly being driven out of a city where many residents rent their homes, endangering the social fabric.

To enhance a vibrant local retail sector on the streets of Paris and to sustain its distinctive food culture, half the 71,000 shops in Paris have restrictions placed on them to prevent inappropriate change of use when the shopkeeper either sells up or retires. This means that a small food shop would have to remain a food shop, and it would prevent, for example, a string of mobile phone chain shops replacing butchers, bakers or greengrocers. The move follows studies showing that the number of delicatessens has fallen by 42.8 per cent in the past decade, with butchers falling by 27.2 per cent, fishmongers by 26 per cent and bakers by 16.2 per cent. At the same time, the number of mobile telephone shops has risen by 350 per cent, fast-food restaurants by 310 per cent and gymnasiums by 190 per cent. Other measures in the plan include a requirement for developers to set aside 2 per cent of any new building for residents' bicycles and pushchairs. On the other hand it will reduce the number of parking spaces they are required to create.98

diversity of French shopping. Poland has also enacted similar versions of this law.

• Using planning law to protect locally owned stores. Planning gain agreements, such as Section 106 in Britain, which usually grant planning permits to social housing, should extend to include locally owned stores.

• Introducing a retail takeover moratorium and limit market share to 10 per cent. Tesco in Britain, for example, currently has a market share of over 30 per cent; the next three each have over 10 per cent.

• Extending local tax relief to independents, such as newsagents, and food, beverage and tobacco retailers, particularly those in villages, town centres and deprived urban neighbourhoods.

• Undertaking local money flow analyses. Local authorities, planning agencies, regeneration bodies and regional development agencies need to monitor local money flows to help guide local retail development.

• Setting requirements for economic and community impact studies.

• Holding local referenda on major developments that affect the identity of localities. Some issues, such as local identity, are so important that the ordinary democratic process is not enough.99

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