The Mailed Fist of the Free Market

Superstores are destroying the local economy

By George Monbiot. Published in the Evening Standard 2nd May 1996.

Forty years ago, there were fifty bakeries in the four square miles around my home. Today there’s just one, and it is teetering on the brink of closure. Gibbons’ Bakery is the last place in east Oxford which deals almost exclusively in local produce. Its flour comes from a mill in the Cotswolds, the honey it sells from a village just beyond the ringroad, its eggs from a field down by the river, half a mile away.

It sells cards and mugs made by children in the school across the road and, in the summer, fruit and vegetables from people’s back gardens. It is, in other words, a pillar of the community. People come here to gossip and to put the world to rights. Its peculiarities are found nowhere else on earth.

It’s not hard to see why its sales have declined. Superstores have been springing up all over the city – in and out of town. They use bread as a “loss leader” – a line sold for less than it costs in order to attract customers – and it is sometimes on offer for as little as 29 pence. If Gibbons’ goes, we will, like nearly every urban area in Britain, lose one of the threads which hold society together.

Our supermarkets are pleasure domes that our grandparents could only have dreamt of. Never before have we been faced with such dazzling variety, such perfectly proportioned peppers and unblemished aubergines. Never before has shopping been so painless. But they are tearing the fabric of the nation apart. They are wiping out our producers, fragmenting our communities and obliterating the sense of neighbourhood without which there can be no nationhood. The cheapness, choice and convenience they offer are possible only because all of us are subsidising them, with our health, our jobs, our environment and our communities.

Last year, one of the best apple harvests Somerset has ever known rotted on the ground because the supermarkets in Taunton and Yeovil were selling cider grown in Herefordshire, bottled in Northamptonshire then driven to Somerset. As they buy, store and distribute nationally, and demand huge quantities of uniform produce, superstores find it easier to purchase their stock from a small number of big producers, concentrated in just a few places.

The logistics that result would make Enver Hoxa turn in his grave. One company trucks fish down from Aberdeen to be smoked in Cornwall, then drives them back to its stores in Scotland. Another imports bananas at Southampton, hauls them to Liverpool for ripening, then back to Southampton for distribution. Herefordshire lettuces travel to a distribution point in Basingstoke, while West Sussex lettuces go to Herefordshire. Milk from farms on the south coast of England is turning up, a day or two later, in stores on the north coast of Scotland.

As they purchase in enormous quantities, many chains now find it cheaper and easier to buy from abroad than at home. So, during our own apple season, we are offered out-of-season coxes from New Zealand and lifeless Granny Smiths from South Africa. Potatoes are flown in from Australia, asparagus growers in the Vale of Evesham leave their lands fallow, as the local stores are now buying from Spain. Heathrow, where the market gardens which supplied much of London used to be, is now British horticulture’s nemesis.

These nightmare ergonomics erode our sense of both place and time. The strawberries which made June special now arrive – albeit bloated and tasteless – at Christmas. The links between a city and the land that surrounds it have been broken. We are becoming the citizens of nowhere.

Supermarkets can only work like this because road freight and air freight are under-priced. The costs inflicted on our infrastructure, our health and our peace of mind by ever-growing fleets of lorries and ever-expanding airports are borne by us, not by them.

Many stores, moreover, are almost impossible to visit without a car – the way they are sited and planned has contributed hugely to urban congestion and pollution, while excluding those who can’t afford to drive. The government’s moratorium on out-of-town stores is a good move, but it means that the supermarkets are now snapping up sites inside the cities. A survey of residents in Kensington and Chelsea showed that, even there, 60 per cent of customers found it more convenient to visit the local Sainsbury’s by car.

The supermarkets emphasise the numbers of people they employ. Last month Tesco announced that it was creating an extra 4,500 part-time jobs. Yet they say nothing of the jobs they destroy. Unless we’re all to become ever more obese, we can only eat a certain amount of food, so if the supermarkets are selling it, someone else isn’t. As the big stores, by comparison to small shops, are efficient employers, it’s a safe assumption that every job they create means more than one job lost. The quality of employment for a flexibly-contracted part-time checkout assistant can scarcely be compared to the job-satisfaction of a self-possessed small shopkeeper.

Moreover, by concentrating all the economic activity into a few hotspots, the superstores leave the rest of our cities empty and lifeless. It is in this vacuum of alienation and anomie that vandalism, burglary and violence breed.

Interestingly, despite these social subsidies, and perhaps because they enjoy the highest profit margins in Europe, British supermarkets are not always cheaper than competing outlets. A survey by Professor Tim Lang of Thames Valley University showed that the fruit and vegetables in street markets are often a third cheaper than the same produce in supermarkets. Street markets can’t, however, offer one-stop shopping. Part of the reason is that their size tends to be constrained by local authorities. The superstores, by contrast, have few such problems – they routinely offer councils sweeteners of up to a million pounds in return for planning permission.

The supermarkets, in other words, use not the invisible hand of the free market but the mailed fist of economic distortion. It is for this reason that they have become a blight on our lives. If we’re to reclaim a sense of belonging to our nation and to ourselves, we must put these careless giants in their place.