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Life without supermarkets: community action is the best way to beat them

Laura Laker

10th August, 2010

A hypermarket victory in Hackney demonstrates how local groups can help protect community shops...

In the continued absence of Government intervention on the monopoly of supermarkets, I've discovered that individuals and groups really can make a difference to their local economies, and there is plenty of evidence to show why they should try.

I'll admit that there haven't been great developments either way in recent plans to open a Tesco Metro near my beloved corner shop, but there's still been one in the eye for the Tescopoly this week. Opposition from local groups has successfully scuppered proposals for a 13-storey Tesco hypermarket and housing complex to replace the already monstrous supermarket in the centre of Hackney, despite support from the local council for the plans.

In this and many similar cases the lure of extra jobs is a big pull for local decision-makers, but there are suggestions that supermarket job-creation figures are misleading. Councils can be tempted to accept often-biased data provided by supermarkets without obtaining second opinions, so intervention by local groups can be key in protecting small businesses.

One example of community intervention came to light when an unlikely friend (not usually into such things) took me to a particularly inspiring co-operatively run café in the heart of South London last weekend.

Eat your way to independence

Bonnington Café is a vegetarian and vegan cafe in a homely old shop, selling tasty, healthy and reasonably priced food. Run by a co-operative of chefs from around the world - whom you can ‘meet' online before visiting - this seemed to me what local food should be. Started in the 1980s, it has blossomed from its roots as a squat café providing cheap meals for the community.

As we sat in the café, admiring our surroundings and the sense of tranquillity, complete with magnificent large window looking out onto the street, I realised that until I took my friend along to last month's food co-op she didn't even know what one was! As we ate and she enthused happily about the quality of food, I felt I'd started something. To my interest, she continued to tell friends we bumped into on the way back home about it.

Just around the corner from the café, Bonnington Square is a little piece of paradise amidst the throng of Vauxhall, with a community-run garden, which has spread its green tentacles among the neighbouring streets.

Bombed in WWII, for many years the square possessed a couple of token municipal swings and later became a centre for dog mess and vandalism, the council apparently forgetting about it. In the 1990s, plans were made to redevelop the site.

With a sense of community already in place, locals fought, and won, the right to transform the area into a community garden, which is now successfully run by volunteers. With the garden's towering exotic trees, you half expect to see the odd monkey swinging past on a vine. Here residents have taken real ownership of their slice of the city, a natural progression from the café's roots.

This gave me hope that even if the Government won't yet intervene and right the balance between local markets and supermarkets, people can, whether by political pressure or community action. By exploring the alternatives to big business there are also very real rewards.

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist

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