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The Tesco Chainstore Massacre

Paul Kingsnorth

1st May, 2006

How one small English town took on a superstore - and won

This is the second time that Ronald Wright has shown me his selection of nails. He’s evidently proud of them. We’re in the back room of Ron’s ironmonger’s shop, which takes pride of place, by virtue of its longevity, in the thriving high street of Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast. Seventy-five year old Ron has worked here for sixty years, as his father and grandfather did before him, and as his two sons do now. Blythe and Wright, founded in 1897, is truly a family firm.

Out front it’s a busy Saturday afternoon. The sun is shining, and the shop is full of men buying paintbrushes, wheelbarrows, drill bits and dowelling. Staff bustle past, talking about laminate and MDF. Ron tells me to pour myself a cuppa from the huge brown teapot that sits on top of a filing cabinet. Small, white-haired and immaculately dressed in shirt and tie, brown shoes and a blue Blythe and Wright overcoat, Ron is proud of what he has built up, and in his rolling Norfolk accent, he is telling me why.

‘We’re one of the last ironmongers in England ,’ he says. ‘It’s all B&Q now, isn’t it? But look at this. Look at this range.’ He indicates the back wall, which is lined with dozens of trays of nails, in every size, shape and quantity imaginable. He sweeps his hand along it proudly, and looks at me intently through his gold-rimmed glasses.

'Now,’ he says, ‘you won’t find this in B&Q. You won’t find this range, and you won’t find them sold individually either. In there it’s all little plastic packets, and you get what you’re given. Here, we give the customer what they want – one nail or one hundred. We’ve got them all, and we know what we’re talking about. You don’t see this anymore, do you? Well, you still see it here.’

'Ironmongers’ is actually a bit of a misnomer when it comes to Blythe and Wright. The word conjures up images, for me anyway, of dusty Dickensian boltholes hung with coal scuttles and cobwebs; something from another century. Blythe and Wright is anything but; this is a big, well-stocked modern shop, selling everything and anything that the hardware enthusiast, DIY-er or gardener could possibly want. It’s popular, well-run and customer friendly; personal service, says Ron, is their speciality.

‘It’s old family firms like this that built England ,’ he declares, proudly. ‘Sheringham may be a small town, but it’s a special one. Did you know that we’re the only town of six or seven thousand people in England that doesn’t straddle a main road? Sheringham wasn’t developed, you see, it evolved. We’re a bit unique, and being unique, we don’t want it spoilt by Tesco.’

Tesco. The name that sends a shudder down the spines of small shopkeepers and independent businesspeople from Truro to Inverness has for the past few years been haunting the dreams of the people of Sheringham. For this small town, huddled on the flat, East Anglian coast, is indeed, in Ron’s words, ‘a bit unique’: it is one of the last towns in Britain without a supermarket. As a result, it has a thriving mass of individual, independent local shops. A walk down its high street is a rare treat, and the character it reveals is a rare thing also. For Sheringham is a town which retains what so many of our towns have lost: independence of character, individuality of outlook – a spirit of its own.

Naturally, then, it seems the ideal place for a vast new Tesco superstore.

That, at least, is the supermarket’s view. Britain ’s fastest-growing and most successful superstore has already captured over 30% of the grocery market in Britain . This year it plans to open over 100 new branches, taking it above 2000 for the first time. One in every eight pounds spent on Britain ’s high streets is spent in Tesco, and the company is expanding rapidly abroad: it now has branches in China , Korea , Poland , Hungary , Thailand , Slovakia , Turkey and Taiwan , and is rumoured to be planning entry into the US market.

But this, apparently, is not enough for Tesco. No corner of the market must be allowed to go untapped. Almost a decade ago, the company identified Sheringham, with its rich local economy and lack of other large competitors, as prime territory. For seven years it engaged in secret negotiations with town, district and county councils, to ensure that it got exactly what it wanted. In cahoots with local councillors, the company redrew the map of Sheringham to accommodate its plans. Only after it had got what it wanted from the council did the company apply for planning permission. And only after that did the people of Sheringham find out what was about to hit them.

When they did find out, there was consternation. To the horror of local shopkeepers, many local residents and even a number of the tourists who flock to this little seaside town every summer, it was revealed that part of the historic town centre was to be demolished to make way for the new store and car park. Sheringham’s fire station and community centre, an old peoples’ home and a row of historic Norfolk flint cottages were to make way for a town-centre superstore serving 38,000 people, in a town whose population numbers less than 8,000. The intention seemed clear: Tesco planned to hoover up the grocery trade not just in Sheringham itself, but in the whole of North Norfolk .

What this would have meant for the rich diversity of Sheringham’s high street was clear enough to those whose living depended on it. One of them is Mike Crowe, whose shop, Crowe’s of Sheringham, is just a few doors away from Blythe and Wright. Crowe’s is a curiosity shop crammed with random nick-nacks: brass pokers and bedpans, baskets of signs that say things like ‘Hands off the barmaid’; plaster ducks; old kettles; lamps; boxes of second-hand cassette players; a bucket of golfballs. Everything is individually priced with a little handwritten stickers.

Mike Crowe has with piercing blue eyes and a face reddened by the sea wind. He’s been in Sheringham for 63 years, and has run this shop for thirty of them. He is also chairman of Sheringham Regeneration, a local group dedicated to improving quality of life in the town. The ironic thing, he says, is that the people of Sheringham would actually like a new food shop. They can see a need for one – but not this one.

‘I think the problem with these big stores is that they’re not really interested in the individual, or in anything different’, he says thoughtfully, leaning on his scuffed wooden shop counter. ‘If Tesco came to Sheringham and said to us “what do you want?” I think the town would be almost unanimous. Ask anyone, and we’ll all say that the town does need a medium-sized food store. We’ve got tiny food shops here and nothing more. But Tesco won’t supply a medium-sized food store because it doesn’t fit in with what they do. There’s no profits there. They want a big food store, with all the extras.

We’re interrupted by a woman who has been browsing around in the buckets and cabinets for the last five minutes.

‘Do you sell fire grates?’ she says to Mike.

‘No’, he says, slowly. ‘Sorry. Try next door.’

‘I already have.’ Mike shrugs apologetically and resumes our conversation.

‘Tesco’s,’ he says, ‘are big business, and big business is not interested in meeting our needs. I don’t think there’s any argument against the concept of a new food shop. It’s the size. It’s the little man feeling they’re getting trodden underfoot. That’s where the destruction comes. You walk down Sheringham’s streets and you can still see individual shops. They’re independent and they’re run by the people who own them. A lot of people say to me, “this is why we come to Sheringham, because of these individual shops”, you know. That’s what makes Sheringham what it is.’

I decide that it’s time to find out what exactly Sheringham is, so I take a slow, studied walk around the town’s three main shopping streets. Sheringham is a picturesque little place. Its buildings are mostly brick and Norfolk flint, its roads are narrow and the town is bound at one end by the arm of the sea wall, sweeping low between the sea and the shore. And it does have a certain feel about it. For a while I’m not quite sure why. It could be the east wind coming in from the sea, or the slight smell of salt in the air, or the wide skies. It takes me a while to pin down what this feeling is, and why, but in the end I do. It is a feeling of individuality, of character, of uniqueness that is lacking in so many of our communities today. Sheringham has a sense of place.

And much of this has to do with the fact that the town is thronging with healthy local businesses. Not the cobwebby, inefficient, backward little dives that supermarkets always like to say towns rely on before they arrive. These are thriving, colourful local shops; everything from traditional chippies to Indian restaurants, ironmongers to pubs, greengrocers to fish shops, tailors to butchers. It’s quite a sight, and it makes me realise how rare it is to see a place like this today. The locals aren’t exaggerating when they say their high street is something special.

I decide to conduct a personal, unscientific survey of Sheringham, to find out just how local its economy is. I get out my notebook and pen and walk the main shopping streets, counting the numbers of shops and businesses that are independent and the number that are chains. As I do so, two things become apparent. Firstly, the sheer variety of shops. This small town has over 42 types of shop, ranging from jewellers to cobblers via pet shops, hairdressers, bookshops and chemists. Secondly, the local far outweighs the national or global. By my reckoning, Sheringham is home to 95 independent local shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. Chains, either national or global, have just 18 outlets, and six of these are banks.

It’s quite a result, and one that would be hard to replicate in most other towns. If you want to know the reason for it, just ask Reg Grimes. Reg will tell you in no uncertain terms that the lack of a superstore and this thriving local economy go hand-in-hand – and that he intends to keep it that way.

Reg is, if you listen to some local opinion, a one-man crusade against the destruction of Sheringham by Tesco, or any other monster retailer that dares to try and get its grubby hands on his town. Reg is the chairman of the Sheringham Preservation Society, but he is also the founder of SCAMROD – the Sheringham Campaign Against Major Retail Over-Development – which has spearheaded the town’s resistance to Tesco. I find him in the town’s old boatshed, which is in the midst of being converted into a gallery to display local shell art. Reg sits on a paint-stained wooden chair surrounded by empty glass display cases and spirit levels. He has big, grey bushy eyebrows, tinted glasses, a grainy Norfolk accent and a look of determination.

‘Ten years ago, the local plan was amended to include a supermarket’, he explains, ‘About two years later, Tesco came along and put in a planning application for a completely inappropriate site. At around the same time – and quite by coincidence, I’m sure – the district council decided quite arbitrarily to extend the town’s boundaries, to include the community centre as an area that could be redeveloped. Shortly thereafter, Tesco withdrew their initial application and applied for a store on the site it wants now, where the community station and the fire station are.’ He looks at me, steadily.

‘That’s when we decided to really get stuck into them’, he says. ‘We did our research. We got together a local group to look at this. We were quite clear that we were not against a decent foodstore. People want one. What we don’t want is a great big company like Tesco or the other big three – they’re all the same – coming in to wipe out competition and spoil the town. Their policy is to take as much trade from the rest of the town as they possibly can. Wherever they’ve set up store, they’ve come out with the same old rubbish every time. It’s identical: “this will encourage more people into the town.” Utter rubbish. People go there with their cars, there’s a two hour restriction on their carparks, people go in, buy their food, get in their car and go home. Their sole purpose in coming here is to capture a large new audience. The actual population here is tiny – maybe 4000 households. They want 38,000 customers. What they’re looking at is bringing in people from surrounding areas, in their cars. It increases traffic as well as everything else…’

As Reg and SCAMROD began looking at the Tesco plan, they began to uncover more and more things that made them deeply uncomfortable. They discovered that the council, which had just spent £2.5 million of public money refurbishing a block of council flats, now proposed to allow Tesco to demolish them to make way for its new store. They discovered that towns of similar size all over Norfolk and elsewhere had seen a rapid collapse in their local business base after Tesco arrived. They discovered that the flint cottages to be demolished were to be replaced by new flats on the town’s allotments, with an access road across common land.

They discovered, too, that the district council, charged with representing the interests of its people, believed that it had no chance of doing so. ‘They are too big and powerful for us’, said the leader of the council, John Sweeney, at the time. ‘If we try and deny them they will appeal and we cannot afford to fight a planning appeal and lose. If they got costs it would bankrupt us.’

And so, apparently believing that they had no choice, the council’s planning committee voted to approve Tesco’s application in 2004. But they hadn’t banked on SCAMROD and the strength of local attachment to that sense of place. Reg and his group swung into action, organising a 900-signature petition, filing objections at every possible point, and working to convince councillors, the local media and the town as a whole that Tesco would be a disaster for Sheringham. Their battle made the national press. Tim e passed, and as it did, Tesco’s luck began to run out.

While Tesco jumped through hoops and battled increasingly vociferous local opinion, government planning guidance on superstores changed, and doubts grew amongst local authorities about the wisdom of their decision to give Tesco the go-ahead. Eventually the district council caved in and commissioned an independent report on the Tesco proposal. When it was published last year, the report’s conclusion was unequivocal: the Tesco plan was bad for Sheringham – the least justified of the four major supermarket applications currently under consideration in the surrounding district. It recommended that such big stores should stick to bigger towns.

The report buoyed up SCAMROD and forced a rethink in the district council. Despite frantic lobbying, the tide had turned against Tesco. Last September, the council’s planning committee, which had approved the superstore application two years before, rejected it by twenty votes to nil. All their power and influence had apparently availed them nothing. Tesco had lost.

You might expect Reg and the townsfolk to be triumphalist, but they remain, instead, cautiously optimistic. Tesco could still appeal against the decision, warns Reg. Anything could still happen. Tesco, after all, are not known for giving up. But for now, at least, Sheringham remains alive.

‘When Tesco first came, they said their store would be up and running here by 2003’, says Reg. ‘That was their aim. So we’ve done quite a good job so far, I think.’ And he smiles, quietly.

Also smiling, back in his shop on the bustling high street, is Mike Crowe. Like the other local shopkeepers, businesspeople and residents who objected to, or took up arms against, the Tesco invasion, Mike is happy with the result. He is happy because he knows what was at stake, and what questions were posed by this local battle with national implications.

‘It’s about what we are, and what we want to be’, he says, simply. ‘An individual town, or just like everywhere else? An individual life, or a life controlled by someone else? That’s what it was all about. And for now, we got the right answers.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2006

 

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