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Hypermarket nation trumps Danny Boyle's vision

Film director Danny Boyle’s central vision for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony is a representation of idealised rural life, with cows and sheep grazing, and a ploughman at work. It is, said Boyle, “the green and pleasant land. It is something that still exists, and something that cries out to all of us like a childhood memory".

How ironic that in the same week as Boyle’s attempt at nostalgia was unveiled, a report was published showing that the food networks that support agriculture in this more traditional form are collapsing under pressure from the supermarkets and out-of-town development.

A report from the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), finds that "despite their critical importance to the health of our high streets, local economies and much loved landscapes, local food networks are under-recognised and poorly supported".

The report – from Field to Fork – shows that across England local food outlets serve an estimated 16.3 million customers a week and local food sales through independent outlets are worth £2.7 billion a year to the economy, supporting over 100,000 jobs.

They support diversity, distinctiveness and innovation in the food and farming sectors, broaden choice for shoppers, promote seasonality, reduce food miles and shape the character of towns and countryside.

But they are under continuous pressure and cracking under the strain. As supermarkets have expanded their share of the food market to 77% of the total, they have displaced food from the high street and the street market. Where smaller supermarkets are integrated into high streets, some diversity is maintained but where they move to giant out of town locations they destroy local food networks.

In spite of many pious promises to act on reports from retail experts, including the latest one from Mary Portas, out-of-town shopping developments are still increasing.

In 1980 there were fewer than 300 superstores and hypermarkets – by 2007 the number had soared to 1,500. And by late 2011, applications had been submitted or permission granted for a reported 44 million square feet of new supermarket development, equivalent to 572 football fields, 80% of it out of town.

Local councils occasionally attempt to deny planning permission, whereupon the supermarkets simply appeal to central government or pile on the pressure until agreement is given.

The result has been a collapse in traditional specialist food stores, such as butchers and greengrocers, from around 120,000 in the 1950s to 18,000 in the late 2000s. Town centre vacancy rates now average 14% and can be as high as 30%.

The reality in Britain is of farmers struggling to get a decent return for their produce from supermarket buyers who wield market power ruthlessly. And there is now a new drive to further industrialise farming in response to this (see my recent blog on this).

Whilst the supermarkets claim to create jobs, in 1998 the National Retail Planning Forum examined the effects on employment following the opening of 93 edge-of-town supermarkets and found a net average loss of 276 jobs in each area.

For shoppers there is no real price advantage at supermarkets. They all now promise to charge exactly the same as their competitors for most brands, and try to fool us that this is a benefit, not a cartel at work.

Boyle is right – the rural landscape is what most people cherish. But the corporates cherish only their bottom line. Their vision of England is a giant hypermarket fed by industrial farmers working to ferociously low profit margins, shoppers handing over all their cash in one location for goods with little health value and of dubious provenance, low paid workers with no fixed hours, called in to work at a moment's notice – and big fat profits all round!

That wouldn't make for a great Olympic spectacle and it is certainly not sustaining what is left of the “green and pleasant land”.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
14 June 2012

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