A recent campervan trip on the continent had us driving through Britain and France. There, you are struck by the giant retail parks – Harvey Norman, Halfords, HomeStore, B&Q, Carrefour, Intermarché, Cora, E. Leclerc, etc. Everywhere the same pattern – giant retail parks and old towns closing down.
In Britain, you passed through towns, that you knew were finished, Their high streets had just the right mix of bargain bin discount stores, betting shops and boarded up local stores, to show which way the wind was blowing. In France, one is even more surprised – in the country that so vaunts its local food, small shops and markets, the battle is long lost. Most medium sized towns are pretty much closed in terms of small shops and businesses – it’s all happening in the local Intermarché. Even some of the cities are struggling – the city of Rennes that I visited 15 years before, seems a shadow of itself. Enormous retail parks have been built on or just off the ring road around the city, including an IKEA. The city centre has been left to the students, graffiti artists, and strung out frequenting its many bars and pubs.
The giant retail parks on the edge of our cities and towns mark a huge change in the life that grew up around crossroads, river crossings, lakes, mountain passes, around local sources of industry, coal, steel, agriculture. Our market centres gave us the town square, high street, the town hall, the agora or public space. Our democracy itself, you could argue, originated in the public square, where people met, discussed or demonstrated. The new retail parks are private towns. Controlled by large companies. Company laws apply, enforced by the company police.
– And sure isn’t that just what people want? Aren’t you comfortable in your romantic notions of local food, and small local shops? People don’t live like that anymore. People lead busy lives, and the few hours they have off at the weekend, they want to be able to go to one place and get everything they need… QUICKLY!
– Sure, but was this a decision we made together? “Ok so we’re going to close the local shops, and build large new private towns on the edge of towns, that people must drive to. It will be quicker for people to get their shopping done, are everyone will be happier.” Is that what we decided? Did the planners say we needed that? Or did weak civic political society drift into that, led by the bigger budgets and wallets of superstore developers?
What does that mean for our towns and cities? The quote that England was a “nation of shopkeepers” meant, in the words of economist Adam Smith, that it was nation “whose government was influenced by shopkeepers”, a reference to the civic mindedness of England’s commerical class, and small business owners. What now for such or similar nations? Is a self-employed small shopkeeper necessarily more civic minded than the employee of the large multiple, working week to week? And what will be the impact on our countries, further down this road, if we are all more transient, if all our public spaces are privately owned, and we all work week to week. We get a ‘proletarianisation’ of small business. Does this mean we invest the same in our locality as a town of 20 or 30 independently owning small shopkeepers? Do I volunteer with my local sports club or community group – if I know that, very possibly, I’m out of here in a few months? Could it mean another shift in power away from the already frayed active citizen?
According to Professor Kevin M. Leyden from the School of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway, ‘Small local shops have an economic multiplier effect as they use local solicitors, accountants and web designers. They advertise in local media. Profit tends to stay in the area while the corporate supermarket pays dividends to shareholders. Crucially, the local shop has been the first job for many young people. It has been estimated that up to 52% of a local shops revenue is recirculated in the local economy compared to only 13.6% of a national chain’s revenue.’ (source: P.10, Report on the Community Retail Conference, Horse & Jockey, Tipperary)