George Monbiot on the Supermarkets’ Decimation of the Small Businesses

I’ve just started reading George Monbiot’s Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (London: Pan MacMillan 2000), about how our country was taken over politically and economically by the big corporations. One of the chapters, is entitled ‘Economic Cleansing – How the Supermarkets Conquered Britain’. This opens by describing how Brecon’s thriving independent shops and small businesses were decimated when the Parks Authority, which governs the town, decided to back the construction of a new Safeways on the site of the town’s livestock market. Knowing some of the farmers in the area, I found this particularly interesting. The farmers were complaining about how they were being driven out of business by the predatory pricing of the big supermarkets. This is true and still very much an issue for farming communities. And Monbiot gives the stats on how small businesses up and down the country are being ruined by the large supermarkets.

During the 1990s, according to the consultancy Verdict, the number of specialist shops like Brian Keylock’s [a butcher featured in the chapter] fell by 22 per cent in Britain. The smallest ones were hit hardest: between 1990 and 1996, shops with annual sales of less than £100,000 declined by 36 per cent. Between 1986 and 1997, by contrast, superstore numbers rose from 457 to 1,102. While most towns have suffered substantial losses, the impact has been even greater in the countryside: at the end of 1997 the Rural Development Commission revealed that 42 per cent of rural parishes no longer possessed a shop.

This is plainly not due to an overall reduction in trade: between 1992 and 1997 retail food sales in Britain increased by £18.6bn, or 30 per cent. But while small shops lost 8.5 per cent of their trade between 1990 and 1996, large retailers gained 18 per cent. The two trends – of the decline in small independent shops and the expansion of the superstore chains – appear to be linked.

In 1998, the government published the most comprehensive assessment of the impact of superstores ever undertaken. Its findings were unequivocal. Food shops in market towns lost between 13 and 50 per cent of their trade when a supermarket opened at the edge of the town centre or out of town. The result is ‘the closure of some town centre food retailers; increases in vacancy levels; and a general decline in the quality of the environment of the centre … Even where town centre food retailers suffer an impact, but do not subsequently close, there may still be a concern that this will lead to a general decline in activity elsewhere in the centre, and adversely affect the vitality and viability of the centre.’ (p. 169).

A few days ago I signed a petition put up by Adam Bernstein, a small businessman in London, who runs a Jewish deli. Mr Bernstein was concerned at the way businesses like his were being driven out of the capital by the big stores. He wanted the government to appoint a ‘small business czar’ to protect this nation’s Arkwrights. He’s absolutely right. The s-s-small businessmen of the kind shown in the classic TV comedy, Open All Hours, are under threat. Monbiot quotes the retailers in Brecon as saying that there’s a sense of community there that’s been created by them, as people talk when they come into the shop. He’s right, and shows like Open All Hours are undoubtedly popular partly because they do celebrate the sense of community created by such small businesses. Even when they’re run by notoriously mean grotesques like Arkwright, and now his nephew and protégé, Granville. But this is being destroyed for the corporate profits of our politicos’ paymasters. Millions of people across the UK dream of running their own business. For many men, it’s the idea of owning a garage fixing cars and bikes. But this is being taken away from them by a series of governments that have consistently favoured big business, no matter what platitudes they’ve spouted about the value of the small, independent businessman and woman. And Monbiot has supplied the stats to prove it.

Once upon a time, Maggie Thatcher made much about how she was ‘working class’ because her father owned a shop. She wasn’t working class, of course. She was petit bourgeois, lower middle class. And she, and the Conservative administrations after her, including Blair in New Labour, have done neither the working nor lower middle classes any good. As a result, our high streets are dying, our sense of community is being lost, and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, as the businesses that bridge that gulf are being forced into liquidation.

This desperately needs to change. I noticed from Mike’s blog that Labour in Wales are promising tax cuts to the small businessman, and an investment bank for Wales to offer credit to micro, small and medium businesses. These seem to me to be sound policies. But we also need to get the corporate rich out of politics, so the working and lower middle classes aren’t impoverished by Cameron’s and Bliar’s friends in big business.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “George Monbiot on the Supermarkets’ Decimation of the Small Businesses”

  1. Florence Says:

    Allied to support for small businesses we need the masses to have £ in their pockets to spend. The millions for whom £50pw is a family food budgut is the real issue. The middle & upper classes do not shop where we shop, or buy what we buy. For those on a tight budget, the promise of cheap but lower quality food and families where both adults work full time all work against the small retailer.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I know what you mean, Florence, but one of the astonishing things is that it is not necessarily the case that the independent retailer is priced out by the big stores. The opposite is sometimes true. There’s a section in Monbiot where he says that the fruit and veg bought in markets may be much cheaper than at the local supermarket. But I take your point. That is a problem.

      • Florence Says:

        Pricing was initially predatory by the supermarket’s when they started moving in back then. The pricing now is carefully balanced between what people will pay, and creating perceptions of low prices and special offers, driving more sales. Not so long ago some supermarkets experimented with prices varying between stores even in the same town, which was very unpopular, unsurprisingly. People now are so used to having trollies to carry shopping, and wheeling it back to the car boot append to find market shopping to much like hard work, and so relegated to the poor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: