Monotonous Monopoly

The superstores are changing the world to suit themselves

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, sometime in 1995

Chairman Mao could scarcely have presided over such logistics. As one of the best apple harvests ever known rots on the ground, the autumn air shudders with lorries delivering out-of-season Granny Smiths from South Africa and lifeless Coxes from New Zealand. Potatoes are being flown in from Australia just as ours are being lifted from the ground; Kenyan beans are filling the shelves while British farmers are ploughing theirs back in. Heathrow airport was built on the market gardens that once fed London; now its traffic renders British horticulture void.

Such bedlam ergonomics result partly from the low prices of air and road freight, which fail to reflect the costs they impose on human health, the environment, infrastructure and housing. But they also arise directly from the growth of the multiples – or chains of superstores. It is now becoming clear that their ascendancy is not the outcome of an untrammelled free market, but of something very close to a command economy.

The rise of the multiples has been stupendous. Having annexed the food market, they are now sucking in many of the other functions of the high street and village shops: post offices, books and now, if ASDA has its way, pharmaceuticals. All this, we are told, is a straightforward response to demand. These retailers have triumphed because their economies of scale and sound business plans have been able to deliver cheaper products, more choice and more convenience. But the truth is that they would never have been able to establish their grip without deliberate and systematic distortions of the planning system delivered by friends in both local authorities and government.

Impoverished councils routinely sell the multiples land which local people had been led to understand was not available for such development, for huge sums of money. The companies will then apply to the same local authority for planning permission and will invariably receive it. Objectors discover that, saving a few formalities, the deal has been secretly – and illegally – concluded before the planning process began; the planning agreement was included in the price of the site.

Elsewhere, the stitch-up can be even less subtle. Reasonably enough, a local authority is permitted to change its mind in favour of a development if the developer alters his proposal to offer some benefit to the community. A house-builder, for example, may incorporate some low-cost homes into an estate of executive mansions. But the principle of “planning gain” has been extended, on innumerable occasions, to deliver putative benefits somewhere else – the developer may offer to build a swimming pool on the other side of town, for example, or simply give the authority a million pounds. This practice, which the rest of us would recognize as bribery, is now so commonplace that most councillors seem to be unaware that it’s illegal, and will boast about the amenities or the cash they’ve secured.

Just in case anything goes wrong, however, the Department of Environment’s planning guidelines ensure that local objectors don’t stand a cat’s chance of defending their community from a determined developer. The developer has a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, while objectors do not. If this fails, similar applications can be submitted until the developer has exhausted both the will and the resources of local people.

The costs of these distortions are borne by all of us. The length of the multiples’ supply lines, the outrageous demands with which they now confront producers, and their insistence on uniform produce all round the year means that horticulture in Britain is being driven close to extinction. The links between consumers and local producers, so important both to local diversity and to our sense of belonging, have been comprehensively broken. At the same time, the housing land we so desperately need is being swallowed up by developments we patently do not.

The multiples are efficient employers, which means that few people are needed to shift their goods. As we can only consume a certain amount of such products as food and pharmaceuticals, their gain is other retailers’ loss. Small shops and street markets are less efficient employers, so one job created by the superstores will mean more than one job lost. There is also, of course, a world of difference between the quality of employment enjoyed by a self-possessed small shop-keeper and that of a flexibly-contracted part-time checkout assistant.

The new developments, moreover, become economic hotspots surrounded by frozen wastes. Homogeneity is inimical to community, and the small shops and markets scattered among our homes are among the few real pillars of society.

As these consequences accumulate, it becomes clear that the multiples make our lives more expensive, less convenient and poorer in choice. Were the costs they impose on society to be reflected in the price of their goods, no one would visit them. But the distortions which permit them to exist mean that society is enslaved so that they might freely trade.